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Maritime Exploration 
in the Age of Discovery, 




Maritime Exploration 
in the Age of Discovery, 

Recent Titles in 

Greenwood Guides to Historic Events, 1500-1900 

Claudine L. Ferrell 

The Spanish-American War 
Kenneth E. Hendrickson, Jr. 

The American Revolution 
Joseph C. Morton 

The French Revolution 
Linda S. Frey and Marsha L. Frey 

The French and Indian War 
Alfred A. Cave 

The Lewis and Clark Expedition 
Harry William Fritz 

The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists 
Barry Hankins 

The Age of Napoleon 
Susan P. Conner 

The American Civil War 
Cole C. Kingseed 

The Scientific Revolution and the Foundations of Modern Science 
Wilbur Applebaum 

The Mexican War 

David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler 

The Abolitionist Movement 
Claudine L. Ferrell 

Maritime Exploration 
in the Age of Discovery, 


Ronald S. Love 

Greenwood Guides to Historic Events, 1500-1900 
Linda S. Frey and Marsha L. Frey, Series Editors 


Westport, Connecticut • London 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 
Love, Ronald S., 1955- 

Maritime exploration in the age of discovery, 1415—1800 / Ronald S. 

p. cm. — (Greenwood guides to historic events, 1500-1900, ISSN 

Includes bibliographical references and index. 

ISBN 0-313-32043-8 (alk. paper) 

1. Discoveries in geography. I. Title. II. Series. 

G80.L815 2006 

910.9'03—dc22 2006015162 

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data is available. 

Copyright © 2006 by Ronald S. Love 

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be 
reproduced, by any process or technique, without the 
express written consent of the publisher. 

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2006015162 
ISBN: 0-313-32043-8 
ISSN: 1538-442X 

First published in 2006 

Greenwood Press, 88 Post Road West, Westport, CT 06881 
An imprint of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc. 

Printed in the United States of America 

The paper used in this book complies with the 
Permanent Paper Standard issued by the National 
Information Standards Organization (Z39.48-1984). 

10 987654321 

This book is dedicated to my three brothers, 
David, Gord, and Dan Love. 

May their children learn from their fathers’ 
appreciation of history. 


Series Foreword by Linda S. Frey and Marsha L. Frey ix 

Preface xiii 

Acknowledgments xvii 

Chronology of Events xix 

Chapter 1 Historical Overview 1 

Chapter 2 Portugal and the Search for a Sea Route to Asia 9 

Chapter 3 Spain and the Discovery of a New World 33 

Chapter 4 Circumnavigation and the Search for a 

Northern Passage to China 55 

Chapter 5 Exploration of the Great South Sea 85 

Epilogue 115 

Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 119 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery 

and Exploration 137 

Glossary of Selected Terms 167 

Annotated Bibliography 171 

Index 185 

Photographs follow page 84. 

Series Foreword 

American statesman Adlai Stevenson stated, “We can chart our future 
clearly and wisely only when we know the path which has led to the 
present.” This series, Greenwood Guides to Historic Events, 1500- 
1900, is designed to illuminate that path by focusing on events from 
1500 to 1900 that have shaped the world. The years 1500 to 1900 
include what historians call the early modern period (1500 to 1789, 
the onset of the French Revolution) and part of the modern period 
(1789 to 1900). 

In 1500, an acceleration of key trends marked the beginnings 
of an interdependent world and the posing of seminal questions that 
changed the nature and terms of intellectual debate. The series 
closes with 1900, the inauguration of the twentieth century. This 
period witnessed profound economic, social, political, cultural, reli¬ 
gious, and military changes. An industrial and technological revolu¬ 
tion transformed the modes of production, marked the transition 
from a rural to an urban economy, and ultimately raised the stand¬ 
ard of living. Social classes and distinctions shifted. The emergence 
of the territorial and later the national state altered man’s relations 
with and view of political authority. The shattering of the religious 
unity of the Roman Catholic world in Europe marked the rise of a 
new pluralism. Military revolutions changed the nature of warfare. 
The books in this series emphasize the complexity and diversity of 
the human tapestry and include political, economic, social, intellec¬ 
tual, military, and cultural topics. Some of the authors focus on 
events in U.S. history such as the Salem witchcraft trials, the 
American Revolution, the abolitionist movement, and the Civil War. 
Others analyze European topics, such as the Reformation and 
Counter-Reformation and the French Revolution. Still others bridge 
cultures and continents by examining the voyages of discovery, the 

Series Foreword 

Atlantic slave trade, and the Age of Imperialism. Some focus on in¬ 
tellectual questions that have shaped the modern world, such as 
Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, or on turning points such as the 
Age of Romanticism. Others examine defining economic, religious, 
or legal events or issues such as the building of the railroads, the 
Second Great Awakening, and abolitionism. Heroes (e.g., Meriwether 
Lewis and William Clark), scientists (e.g., Darwin), military leaders 
(e.g., Napoleon Bonaparte), poets (e.g., Lord Byron) stride across 
the pages. Many of these events were seminal in that they marked 
profound changes or turning points. The Scientific Revolution, for 
example, changed the way individuals viewed themselves and their 

The authors, acknowledged experts in their fields, synthesize 
key events, set developments within the larger historical context, 
and, most important, present well-balanced, well-written accounts 
that integrate the most recent scholarship in the field. 

The topics were chosen by an advisory board composed of his¬ 
torians, high school history teachers, and school librarians to sup¬ 
port the curriculum and meet student research needs. The volumes 
are designed to serve as resources for student research and to pro¬ 
vide clearly written interpretations of topics central to the secondary 
school and lower-level undergraduate history curriculum. Each 
author outlines a basic chronology to guide the reader through 
often-confusing events and presents a historical overview to set those 
events within a narrative framework. Three to five topical chapters 
underscore critical aspects of the event. In the final chapter the 
author examines the impact and consequences of the event. Bio¬ 
graphical sketches furnish background on the lives and contributions 
of the players who strut across the stage. Ten to fifteen primary 
documents, ranging from letters to diary entries, song lyrics, procla¬ 
mations, and posters, cast light on the event, provide material for 
student essays, and stimulate critical engagement with the sources. 
Introductions identify the authors of the documents and the main 
issues. In some cases a glossary of selected terms is provided as a 
guide to the reader. Each work contains an annotated bibliography 
of recommended books, articles, CD-ROMs, Internet sites, videos, 
and films that set the materials within the historical debate. 

Reading these works can lead to a more sophisticated under¬ 
standing of the events and debates that have shaped the modern 
world and can stimulate a more active engagement with the issues 
that still affect us. It has been a particularly enriching experience to 
work closely with such dedicated professionals. We have come to 

Series Foreword 

know and value even more highly the authors in this series and our 
editors at Greenwood, particularly Kevin Ohe and Michael Hermann. 
In many cases they have become more than colleagues; they have 
become friends. To them and to future historians we dedicate this 

Linda S. Frey 
University of Montana 

Marsha L. Frey 
Kansas State University 


They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great 
waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in 
the deep. 

—Psalm 107: 23-24 

Over the past hundred years, the topic of European exploration and 
expansion around the globe has attracted extensive historical inter¬ 
est, from its beginnings with the early fifteenth-century Portuguese 
voyages down the west coast of Africa to the closing years of the 
eighteenth century on the eve of the Age of Imperialism. During that 
period of study, the literature has undergone several important trans¬ 
formations. It has evolved from what may be described as the “seeds 
of empire” school of thought to the current preoccupation with the 
experience of indigenous peoples (the so-called Other) in relation to 
Europeans who are depicted largely as aggressors. Starting roughly 
in 1880 and continuing to 1940, British, French, Dutch, and 
Portuguese civil servants who administered the overseas possessions 
of their respective countries wrote in order to glorify past colonial 
ventures as a means of legitimizing the imperialism of their day. Not 
surprisingly, their books were Eurocentric, even nationalistic, in spi¬ 
rit, reflecting the political trends and attitudes of that time. 

Only since the end of the Second World War, and during the past 
twenty-five years in particular, has renewed interest in the historical 
phenomenon of European exploration and expansion produced a 
more balanced approach—one that acknowledges the intense econo¬ 
mic, social, religious, and cultural interaction that developed between 
Europe and other societies encountered in Asia, the Americas, and the 
Pacific islands of Oceania. That evolution combined the best elements 
of the traditional literature with the refinements in method and per¬ 
spective of post-1945 scholarship. Nevertheless, the research remained 


largely immersed in voyages and commerce, a sort of “ships, guns, and 
ports” focus, emphasizing exploration and discovery over interaction 
and association that contributed in crucial ways to the emergence of 
European domination. 

Building on that work, however, a new generation of scholars 
has applied innovative research techniques to modify both the idea 
of discovery and the Eurocentric “seeds of empire” approach. As a 
result, the field today is far more multicultural, multilingual, and 
multifaceted in scope than ever before. The past decade has wit¬ 
nessed still further, and sometimes extreme, revision of the subject 
sparked by the quincentenary of Columbus’s epic voyage in 1992. 
Rejecting the Eurocentrism of the past, the best of this recent work 
provides a useful counterpoint to the traditional concentration on 
the Western perspective by reminding scholars and their readers that 
there is another point of view. By the same token, much of this work 
also has resulted in a hostile, anti-European reaction and, at its base, 
a distorted representation of the contacts between the Western and 
non-Western worlds of the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries 
that is neither historically accurate nor compelling. 1 

Nevertheless, a common theme of this historiographical evolu¬ 
tion since the late nineteenth century has been the establishment of 
the seaborne empires of Portugal, Spain, England, the United Pro¬ 
vinces of the Dutch Netherlands, and France. These developed from 
voyages of exploration that in their turn profoundly changed the 
way in which ordinary men and women in western Europe viewed 
the wider world. In 1400, just prior to the first of these maritime 
expeditions, Europeans had only a vague and often erroneous idea of 
what lay beyond their shores. Contemporary maps, centered on the 
holy city of Jerusalem, were more or less accurate in their depiction 
of coastlines and kingdoms bordering the Mediterranean Sea, which 
had been well known since ancient times. But what existed outside 
the terrae cognitae of European geographic experience was an 
unsolved riddle and a matter more of conjecture, speculation, and 
fantasy than of any concrete fact. That situation changed dramati¬ 
cally over the next two hundred years or more (if one includes 
Pacific Ocean exploration), as maritime discovery revealed the actual 
contours of most of the habitable world. As a result, European car¬ 
tographers corrected their maps and redrew the outlines of the conti¬ 
nents that are so familiar today. 

As many historians quickly point out, however, in themselves, 
long-distance voyages over open, uncharted seas and acts of discov¬ 
ery were neither new nor unique to the western European experi¬ 
ence. Arab, East Indian, and Chinese navigators, as well as Vikings 


and Polynesian islanders, had undertaken remarkable transoceanic 
journeys long before European mariners sailed in the fifteenth, six¬ 
teenth, and seventeenth centuries. But these early accomplishments 
were rarely repeated or else were forgotten—except, perhaps, as part 
of folklore. At the same time, few of the voyages had anything 
beyond localized significance. 

All of this changed during the Age of Discovery, when Euro¬ 
peans visited most of the inhabited areas of the globe, or at least 
those that were accessible by sea, and encountered vast territories 
formerly unknown to them. In the process, the various regions of 
the earth were united into a single system of navigation, while Euro¬ 
pean command of the sea paved the way for eventual extension of 
Western influence into almost every corner of the globe. Certainly, 
the growth of Europe’s geographic knowledge was followed rapidly 
by the expansion of European trade and territorial control. Maritime 
exploration also contributed to many other fields of discovery during 
the same period, starting with the triumph of empirical study—an 
attitude of “seeing is believing”—over the ancient authority of classi¬ 
cal Greek and Roman authors. Thus began the close association of 
scientific and technological advancement with everyday work that is 
a unique characteristic of the modern Western world. 

Although still convenient for textbooks and examinations, the 
practice of dividing history into great chapters or “ages,” delineated 
by abrupt or arbitrary limits, has little relation to reality. 2 Continuity 
and gradual evolution typify the story of the past, while the complex¬ 
ities of human society today were the result of gradual and continu¬ 
ous processes over time, not sudden cataclysmic change. The more 
one examines these historical processes in detail, the more one recog¬ 
nizes that there are few, if any, abrupt or dramatic transitions in 
human history. 3 Because the societies of the modern world have 
centuries-old roots, and national institutions and cultural patterns are 
more meaningful when viewed from the long perspective of their her¬ 
itage, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint a transformation with any 
degree of accuracy. 

But to overemphasize that kind of continuity presents dangers 
of its own, because it underestimates the subtle scheme of human 
relations, while obscuring irrefutable facts and discernable move¬ 
ments of signal importance. One such movement was the steady 
expansion of contacts among the many cultures of the habitable 
world brought about by geographic discovery. In its wake, the center 
of gravity in politics and economics was displaced steadily away 
from Asia and the Mediterranean sea; furthermore, the maritime 
kingdoms of western Europe were elevated to a new level of 



significance, not just as a counterpoise to groupings of other cultures 
around the globe but also as a distinctive segment of humanity with 
a unique heritage, outlook, and identity in correlation to other soci¬ 
eties across the world. 4 Consequently, much of the political, eco¬ 
nomic, social, and even cultural history of modern times has been 
concerned with the rivalry among different European states for 
opportunities to exploit and develop new lands overseas during that 
period that historians have designated as the great Age of Discovery 
for good reason. Indeed, none of that competition for territorial 
empire would have been possible without those pioneering voyages 
of exploration that interlinked the world’s oceans and cultures, and 
which form the subject of this book. 


1. Glenn J. Ames and Ronald S. Love, eds., Distant Lands and Diverse 
Cultures: The French Experience in Asia, 1600-1700 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 
2003), xiii-xv. 

2. Arthur P. Newton, “The Transition from the Medieval to the Mod¬ 
ern Age,” in The Great Age of Discovery, ed. Arthur P. Newton (New York: 
Burt Franklin and Lenox Hill, Publishers, 1932), 1. 

3. Ibid. 

4. Ibid., 4. 


Among the many rewards of working within a community of schol¬ 
ars is the access one has to assistance from friends and colleagues, 
fellow historians, who willingly proffer their help and support when¬ 
ever asked. For although the task of research and writing is lonely 
work, we all recognize that it is not necessarily isolated work, and 
that the best results are achieved when one draws upon the knowl¬ 
edge and professional advice of others in one’s field. My thanks go in 
particular to Marsha Frey and Linda Frey, the general editors of this 
series, for their stalwart backing, constant encouragement, and end¬ 
less patience during the preparation of this book. Their comments 
on the manuscript at its various stages of completion were both 
welcome and perceptive, and helped to produce a better volume. I am 
also grateful to those individuals who aided me even in little ways, 
whether by verifying an obscure reference or finding some arcane 
detail that would try the forbearance even of Job. Outstanding 
among these persons are Merrill and Linda Distad, Brian Strayer, and 
Elmira Eidson, all of whom have proved to be friends indeed. My 
appreciation extends, as well, to Dawn Liverman for some welcome 
technical assistance. At the same time, I have nothing but the highest 
praise for the assistance I was given so cheerfully by the staff at the 
Library of Congress in the Geography and Map, Prints and Photo¬ 
graphs, and Photoduplication divisions, in terms of finding and 
reproducing pictures for this book. Perhaps my deepest thanks go, 
however, to my graduate student, Melissa Stock, a woman of formi¬ 
dable talent and a skilled apprentice to the craft of history, whose 
help in the final stages of preparing the manuscript and drafting the 
maps was invaluable. 

Chronology of Events 












Portugal completes its Reconquista against the Muslims. 

The Vivaldi brothers depart on a voyage into the Atlantic; 
they are never heard from again. 

Marco Polo returns from his sojourn in China. 

The first of Zheng He’s seven expeditions leaves China to 
impose Ming prestige in maritime Asia. 

Jacobus Angelus translates Ptolemy’s Geography. 

Pierre d’Ailly writes Imago Mundi. 

Portuguese forces capture Ceuta. 

Prince Henry “the Navigator” of Portugal becomes 
governor of the Algarve, where he establishes his court at 

Prince Henry is created Grand Master of the Order of 

Portuguese voyages to west Africa begin under Henry’s 

The Portuguese begin to settle Madeira. 

The Portuguese rediscover the Azores. 

The last voyage of Zheng He sails; China adopts a policy 
of isolationism thereafter. 

Portuguese mariners round Cape Bojador for the first 

Spain is awarded possession of the Canary Islands by 
papal decree. 

Chronology of Events 
















The abortive Portuguese attack on Tangier occurs; Prince 
Henry participates. 

The Portuguese begin to settle the Azores. 

The first slave cargoes are brought back to Portugal from 
west Africa. 

The Portuguese land on Arguim Island. 

Prince Henry is awarded a monopoly of trade and 
conquest in Africa by the Portuguese Crown. 

Portuguese mariners sight Senegal and Cape Verde. 
Gomes Eannes de Azurara writes The Chronicle of the 
Discovery and Conquest of Guinea. 

Christopher Columbus is born at Genoa. 

Constantinople falls to the Ottoman Turks. 

The papal bull Romanus pontifex is issued, granting 
Portugal a monopoly of trade and conquest in Africa and 
credits Prince Henry with seeking an all-sea route to Asia. 
Portuguese merchants and mariners are prohibited from 
seizing slaves by force; a policy of peaceful trade with 
Arab and African merchants is established. 

The Cape Verde Islands are sighted; the mouth of the 
Gambia River is explored. 

Portugal’s first gold coin, the cruzado, is minted from 
proceeds of the African trade. 

The Portuguese expedition to capture Alcacer-Ceguer 
begins; Prince Henry participates. 

Prince Henry dies. 

Portuguese mariners reach Sierra Leon. 

Portuguese mariners enter the Gulf of Guinea. 

The Guinea trade monopoly is granted to Fernao Gomes. 
Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon marry. 

Isabella succeeds to the Castilian throne; civil war erupts. 
Paolo Toscanelli proposes to the king of Portugal the 
possibility of sailing to Asia via the Atlantic. 

Chronology of Events 














War breaks out between Portugal and Castile. 

The first printed edition of Ptolemy’s Geography appears. 
Fernao Gomes’s trade monopoly in Africa is cancelled. 

The Treaty of A1 c a q o v as - To 1 e d o is signed between 
Portugal and Castile. 

Ferdinand ascends the throne of Aragon. 

Isabella is recognized as the rightful queen of Castile, 
ending the civil war. 

Columbus takes up residence in Portugal. 

John II becomes king of Portugal. 

The castle and factory of Sao Jorge da Mina are founded 
on Africa’s Gold Coast. 

Columbus’s “Enterprise of the Indies” is rejected by the 
king of Portugal. 

Columbus proposes his enterprise to the Spanish 
monarchs; it is rejected four years later. 

Bartolomeu Dias departs on his voyage to southern Africa. 
Dias returns to Portugal with news of the discovery of the 
Cape of Good Hope. 

The siege of Granada concludes, freeing Isabella and 
Ferdinand to engage in overseas exploration. 

Columbus departs on his first trans-Atlantic voyage; he 
discovers Hispaniola and other islands. 

The Jews are expelled from Spain. 

Columbus returns to Spain and departs on his second 
voyage, visiting Cuba and Jamaica. 

The colony of La Isabella is founded on Hispaniola. 

Papal bulls of demarcation of the globe between Spain and 
Portugal are issued. 

The Treaty of Tordesillas is signed between Spain and 

Columbus returns from his second voyage. 

The settlement of La Isabella is moved and renamed Santo 


Chronology of Events 










Vasco da Gama departs on his first voyage to India. 

John Cabot departs on his north Atlantic voyage, 
discovering Newfoundland. 

Da Gama reaches Calicut in India. 

Columbus departs on his third voyage to explore parts of 
the American mainland. 

Cabot departs on a second voyage to the north Atlantic 
and North America. 

Da Gama returns to Portugal. 

Afonso de Ojeda and Vincent Yahez Pinzon sail along the 
Guiana, Venezuelan, and Brazilian coasts; Amerigo 
Vespucci is aboard for his first voyage. 

Pedro Alvares Cabral departs for India; he sights the east 
coast of Brazil. 

Gaspar Corte-Real embarks on his first north Atlantic 

Rodrigo de Bastidas visits the shores of the Gulf of Darien. 

Vespucci departs on his second voyage and explores the 
east coast of South America. 

Gaspar Corte-Real departs on his second north Atlantic 

Joao Fernandes sails to the north Atlantic and discovers 

Da Gama departs on his second voyage to India. 

Vespucci discovers the Rio de Janeiro. 

Columbus departs on his fourth voyage to the Americas. 
Juan de la Cosa makes a detailed exploration of the Gulf 
of Darien region. 

Columbus explores the coast of Honduras and Nicaragua. 
Da Gama returns to Portugal. 

Columbus returns to Spain for the last time. 

Francisco de Almeida is appointed viceroy in India. 

The Portuguese establish a fortified factory at Soffala in 
east Africa. 

Binot Paulmyer sails into the south Atlantic and discovers 
Gonneville Land. 

Chronology of Events 











Columbus dies. 

The first Portuguese landing takes place on Ceylon (Sri 

Almeida establishes a fortified factory in Mozambique. 
Martin Waldseemiiller publishes his world map and gives 
the name “America” to the New World. 

Juan Ponce de Leon explores the island of Puerto Rico. 
The Portuguese defeat a Muslim fleet off Diu. 

Afonso de Albuquerque is appointed the new Portuguese 
viceroy in Asia. 

Sebastian Cabot departs on his first voyage in search of a 
Northwest Passage. 

Albuquerque captures Goa; it becomes the headquarters 
of Portugal’s Asian empire. 

Albuquerque captures Malacca, giving the Portuguese 
control of the strait. 

Pietro Martire publishes the first Decade of his history of 
discovery in the New World. 

Ferdinand Magellan participates in a Portuguese 
expedition to Ternate. 

Francisco Serrao establishes a Portuguese outpost on 

The Portuguese attack on Aden in the Red Sea fails. 

Ponce de Leon lands at Florida for the first time. 

Vasco Nunez Balboa crosses the Isthmus of Panama and 
sights the great South Sea (the Pacific). 

The Portuguese reach south China. 

Albuquerque captures Flormuz in the Persian Gulf. 

The Portuguese establish a presence on Ceylon. 

The Portuguese begin to establish control over the 
Moluccas, completed in 1519. 

Balboa crosses the Isthmus of Panama a second time to 
explore the Pacific coast. 

Magellan leaves Portugal in disgrace and enters Spanish 

Chronology of Events 











Magellan departs from Spain on his voyage into the 

Hernan Cortes departs from Cuba to begin the conquest 
of Mexico. 

Balboa is arrested for treason and executed. 

Magellan discovers the strait named for him. 

Magellan reaches the Philippines, where he is killed in a 
local war. 

Sebastian del Cano reaches Tidore. 

Cortes besieges and captures Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). 
Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon explores the coast of the 

Ponce de Leon leads a second expedition to Florida. 

Del Cano returns to Spain with the survivors of Magellan’s 

The Conference of Badajoz fails to settle the Spanish- 
Portuguese rivalry over the Moluccas. 

Giovanni da Verrazano departs on his voyage to explore 
the east coast of North America for France. 

Estevao Gomes investigates the Bahamas and the east 
coast of what is now the United States from Florida to 

Cristobal de Olid explores the Yucatan coast toward 

Verrazano returns to France. 

Garcia Jofre de Loyasa sails from Spain to retrace 
Magellan’s trans-Pacific route. 

Sebastian Cabot leaves Spain to search for a nearer route 
to the Pacific along the South American coast. 

Sebastian Cabot explores the Rio de la Plata. 

Spaniards begin to explore the Pacific coast of Mexico. 
Alvaro de Savaadra makes the first trans-Pacific crossing 
to originate in the New World. 

The Treaty of Zaragoza is signed between Spain and 

Sebastian Cabot returns to Spain. 

Chronology of Events 

















Francisco Pizzaro begins the conquest of Peru. 

Jacques Cartier makes his first voyage to the St. Lawrence 

The Portuguese acquire Diu. 

Cartier makes a second voyage to the St. Lawrence. 

Cartier returns to France. 

Hernando De Soto departs on his expedition to Florida 
and the Mississippi. 

Spanish mariners explore the Gulf of California. 
Portuguese colonization of Brazil begins. 

Cartier embarks on his third voyage to the St. Lawrence. 
Ruy Lopez de Villalobos sails to the Philippines from 
Mexico to explore trade possibilities with China. 

The Portuguese visit Japan for the first time. 

Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo publishes The General and 
Natural History of the Indies. 

Sebastian Cabot returns to England from Spain. 

The English Company of Merchant Adventurers is 
established for the purpose of exploration. 

Francisco Lopez de Gomara publishes the General History 
of the Indies. 

Sir Hugh Willoughby sails to the north Atlantic in search 
of a Northeast Passage. 

Richard Chancellor reaches Russia by sea. 

Pietro Martire’s Decades of the Newe World or West Indies is 
published in English. 

Chancellor makes a second voyage to Russia. 

Stephen Burrough makes a voyage to the north Atlantic in 
search of a Northeast Passage. 

The Portuguese establish their settlement of Macau in 
southern China. 

Lopez de Legazpi sails from Mexico to settle the 

The Spaniards discover a return trans-Pacific route to 


Chronology of Events 

1566 The Dutch Revolt begins against Spain. 

1567 Alvaro de Mendana departs on his expedition into the 
Pacific and discovers the Solomon Islands. 

1568 Mendana’s second Pacific voyage begins; he discovers the 
Marquesas Islands. 

1571 The Manila galleons begin to sail between the Philippines 

and Acapulco in Mexico. 

1576 Sir Humphrey Gilbert publishes A Discourse of a 
Discoveriefor a New Passage to Cataia. 

Martin Frobisher departs on his first voyage in search of a 
Northwest Passage. 

Luis Vaz de Camoes publishes his epic poem of 
Portuguese exploration, The Lusiads. 

1577 Francis Drake leaves England on a voyage to the Pacific. 
Frobisher begins his second voyage in search of a 
Northwest Passage. 

1578 Frobisher’s third voyage begins. 

1580 Drake returns to England, having circumnavigated the 

Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman sail in search of a 
Northeast Passage. 

Portugal becomes part of Spain’s dominions through 
dynastic inheritance. 

1581 The United Provinces declare their independence from 

1582 Edmund Fenton begins his abortive voyage to the Pacific 
via the Strait of Magellan. 

1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert sails to Newfoundland. 

1585 John Davis begins his first voyage in search of a 
Northwest Passage via Greenland. 

1586 Davis embarks on his second voyage. 

1587 Davis departs on his third voyage. 

Thomas Cavendish sails on his circumnavigation of the 
globe via the Strait of Magellan. 

England defeats the Spanish Armada. 


Chronology of Events 
















Richard Hakluyt publishes the first volume of his 
Principall Navigations' volume two follows in 1599 and 
volume three in 1600. 

Cavendish sails on his second, unsuccessful voyage to the 

Richard Hawkins embarks on his abortive voyage to the 
Strait of Magellan. 

William Barents embarks on his first voyage in search of a 
Northeast Passage. 

Barents’s second voyage begins. 

Barents embarks on his third voyage; he discovers 
Spitsbergen Island deep within the Arctic Circle. 

The English East India Company is founded. 

The Dutch East India Company is founded. 

Pedro Fernandez de Quiros sails to the Cook Islands and 
the New Hebrides. 

Luis Vaez de Torres explores the coast of New Guinea and 
discovers the Torres Strait. 

Willem Jansz explores the coasts of New Guinea and 
discovers the northern coast of Australia. 

Henry Hudson makes his first voyage to Greenland, 
Spitsbergen, and the Barents Sea. 

Hudson’s second voyage begins. 

Hudson embarks on his third voyage in search of a 
Northwest Passage; he discovers Hudson Bay. 

Sir Thomas Button sails in search of Hudson and a 
Northwest Passage. 

Robert Bylot sails in search of a Northwest Passage, 
following Davis’s route. 

William Baffin sails in search of a Northwest Passage; he 
reaches Baffin Island. 

Dirck Hartog explores part of the west coast of Australia. 
Jan Le Maire and Willem Schouten sail for the East Indies 
via the Pacific; they discover Cape Horn and the Strait of 
Le Maire. 


Chronology of Events 


















Batavia is founded on Java by the Dutch East India 

Frederick de Houtman explores part of the west coast of 

Jan Carstenz investigates part of the west coast of 

Francois Thijssen explores part of the west coast of 

Luke Foxe and Thomas James sail in search of a 
Northwest Passage; they investigate Hudson Bay in detail. 
Anthony van Diemen is appointed governor-general of 
the Dutch East India Company at Batavia. 

The Dutch capture Malacca from the Portuguese. 

Abel Tasman circumnavigates New Holland (Australia) 
and discovers Tasmania and New Zealand. 

Tasman begins his second voyage to investigate the 
northern coast of Australia. 

William Dampier crosses the Pacific to the East Indies 
from the coast of Mexico. 

Dampier and his crew are the first Englishmen to visit 
New Holland (Australia). 

Dampier publishes A New Voyage Round the World. 
Dampier embarks on his second voyage to New Holland. 
Dampier sails on his third circumnavigation with Woodes 
Rogers, a privateer. 

Jacob Roggeveen sails for the East Indies via the Strait of 
Magellan and discovers Easter Island. 

Vitus Bering embarks on the First Kamchatka Expedition 
to the north Pacific; he discovers the strait that divides 
Asiatic Siberia from Alaska. 

Bering begins the second Kamchatka, or Great Northern 
Expedition, to the north Pacific. 

Pierre Bouvet de Lozier sails to the south Atlantic in 
search of Gonneville Land. 

Chronology of Events 















Bering sights Alaska and explores Kodiak Island, the 
Kenai Peninsula, and the Aleutians on his third voyage. 

Charles de Brasses publishes the History of Navigation to 
the South Lands. 

John Byron sails to the Pacific. 

Alexander Dalrymple publishes An Account of Discoveries 
in the South Pacifick Ocean previous to 1764. 

Samuel Wallis sails to the Pacific and discovers Tahiti. 
Philip Carteret discovers Pitcairn Island and rediscovers a 
number of islands found by Spanish explorers. 
Louis-Antoine de Bougainville sails into the Pacific. 

John Collander publishes the Terra Australis Cognita. 

James Cook begins his first of three voyages to the Pacific; 
he visits Tahiti and maps New Zealand and the west coast 
of Australia. 

Alexander Dalrymple publishes his book asserting the 
existence of the Terra Australis. 

Cook sails on his second voyage to the Pacific. 

Cook embarks on his third voyage to the Pacific. 

Cook is killed by natives on the big island of Hawaii. 

Jean de la Perouse sails to the Pacific; he disappears a year 

Alejandro Malaspina sails on his four-year voyage to the 
Pacific northwest, the Philippines, New Zealand, and 

Bruni d’Entrecasteaux sails to the Pacific in search of La 

George Vancouver sails for the north Pacific and explores 
the northwest coast of North America. 


Historical Overview 

Since 1992, it has become fashionable to diminish the achievements 
and impact of the Age of Exploration by emphasizing that European 
mariners were not unique in their quest for discovery or pursuit of 
overseas settlement. The argument is that since ancient times, travel 
in many of the world’s great oceans was an ongoing feature of the 
human experience. Motivated by the need for new land, the desire 
for trade, or simple curiosity and a spirit of adventure, people along 
the shores of almost every continent on earth turned their attention 
to the saltwaters. 

Over several millennia, for example, mariners from the Malay 
Peninsula of Southeast Asia took to the sea. In the process, they 
explored and colonized the island chains not only of the East Indies, 
modern-day New Guinea, and Melanesia, but also Fiji and the Pacific 
island groups that together comprise Polynesia. Between a.d. 400 and 
1300, subsequent generations of the same people, or their near rela¬ 
tions from islands already settled, discovered and inhabited the west¬ 
ernmost islands of the Marquesas chain, Easter Island toward the 
west coast of South America, the Hawaiian archipelago, and New 
Zealand, crossing thousands of miles of uncharted saltwater in open 
boats to do so. To this day, the various cultures living in this vast 
area of the globe are linked by a kinship of language and custom 
that can be traced ultimately back to Malaysia. Meanwhile, other 
Malay-Indonesians sailed westward through the Indian Ocean to 
colonize the distant island of Madagascar off the southeastern coast 
of Africa. Whether all this expansion was planned deliberately or 
was merely ad hoc in response to particular conditions is still a 
matter of conjecture. Yet what these early seafarers accomplished by 
sailing over tremendous distances without any nautical devices 
other than their knowledge of currents, constellations, and evidence 
of land acquired from centuries of experience was nonetheless 


Equally remarkable was the achievement of those peoples who 
lived and traded since ancient times around the shores of maritime 
Asia. Hugging the coasts of east Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and 
the Far East, mariners and merchants alike learned to use the steady 
rhythm of the monsoon winds that blow throughout the region with 
such predictability as to make navigation for sailing vessels relatively 
safe and trouble free. This ease of movement was rendered easier still 
by the geographic contours of the region, which flow naturally from 
west to east, lending maritime Asia a coherence reinforced by the 
development of an intricate system of seaborne trade, especially fol¬ 
lowing the rise of Islam. Already historical forces, including the 
migration of peoples, means and routes of travel, and economic 
exchange via the famous Silk Road since ancient and medieval times, 
had linked much of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa by land. Just 
as the teeming Muslim cities of the emergent Arabic empire gener¬ 
ated a growing demand for costly goods and commodities, Muslim 
merchants and geographers recognized that the sea that formed the 
headwaters of the Persian Gulf near Basra, or of the Red Sea at Suez, 
offered an unbroken means of travel all the way to China on the 
Pacific’s western rim. Hence, although the Islamic Middle East, 
Hindu India, and Buddhist far-Asia constituted unique zones of cul¬ 
tural identity, strong geographic and commercial links solidified an 
invisible, centuries-old sense of unity among all three. 

Prior to the entry of European voyagers into Asian waters in 
1498, no better illustration of that unity could be found than the 
seven naval expeditions launched successively between 1405 and 
1433 by the third emperor of China’s Ming dynasty, which had over¬ 
thrown Mongol rule in 1368. Commanded by Zheng He, a Muslim 
court eunuch, their chief objective was to impose Chinese prestige 
abroad and to extract recognition of China’s superiority from other 
Asian princes by asserting tributary relations over them. In the words 
of Ma Huan, who chronicled three of the expeditions, Zheng He’s 
instructions were to “go to the various foreign countries in the 
Western Ocean to read out the imperial commands and to bestow 
rewards.” 1 His enormous fleets, composed of specially built “treasure 
ships” of huge proportions and scores of smaller craft (most of them 
larger than the vessels later used by Columbus), visited the major 
ports of Asia, from Java and Malacca to Mogadishu and Malindi on 
the eastern coast of Africa. They carried Arabic-speaking Chinese 
interpreters and luxury items to present as gifts to local rulers, an 
important element in diplomatic protocol among Asian princes. 

Thus diplomacy, not exploration, was the primary purpose 
of these seven extravaganzas. They were intended to extend Ming 

Historical Overview 

influence in distant lands, demonstrate Chinese might, bring new 
kingdoms into the ancient tribute system, enhance China’s trade, 
and expand its knowledge of the world. But that world was a known 
world of which the Chinese were already well aware, not an 
unknown one that had yet to be discovered. Zheng He also followed 
sea routes that were long established. In the process, the great trea¬ 
sure fleets under his command crossed almost half the earth seven 
times, widely spreading Ming prestige, when the voyages were 
halted abruptly in 1433. Imperial attention focused thereafter on in¬ 
ternal matters, as subsequent emperors turned away from the sea. 
Consequently, just as China was poised to become the dominant na¬ 
val force in maritime Asia from east to west, that beginning was cut 
short by later Ming rulers who, having failed to grasp the possibil¬ 
ities of sea power, left the realization of that potential to anyone 
enterprising enough to seize it. 

How different were conditions in the Atlantic Ocean, which 
enjoyed none of Asia’s geographic or commercial cohesiveness, and 
where voyages by seafaring peoples were thus far more haphazard 
and limited in scope. Although Greek and Phoenician seamen had 
sailed as far as the Strait of Gibraltar in ancient times, not until 
Rome spread its power and influence around the shores of the 
Mediterranean Sea, conquered Gaul, and added Britain to its growing 
empire did mariners venture into Atlantic waters along the coasts of 
present-day Spain, France, and England. But these voyages were of 
limited extent and undertaken for the purposes of fishing, trade, and 
communication, not exploration. Moreover, with the fall of the Roman 
Empire in the late fifth century a.d., not only did western Europe 
lose the cohesiveness imposed hitherto by imperial might and admin¬ 
istration, but European society also entered a long period of cultural 
transformation that accompanied its political breakdown. Economic 
exhaustion, population decline, and creeping poverty had afflicted 
the Roman Empire in its last decades of existence, coupled with the 
process of deurbanization as people fled the cities for the country¬ 
side. These conditions had contributed, as well, to the increase in im¬ 
portance and local power of the rural nobility, who began to develop 
the martial spirit and chivalric ideals that came to characterize them 
in the late Middle Ages. Because most invading Germanic tribes also 
adopted Christianity as their faith, the Catholic Church began to play 
an ever more important role, aided by the growth in power and pres¬ 
tige of the Roman bishop (later pope) as head of the only major 
institution to survive the wreckage of the empire. In the meantime, 
but for a brief period during the reign of Emperor Justinian (a.d. 
527-565), Constantinople had turned its back on the west in order 


to protect its own territorial interests in Asia Minor—a decision 
strongly influenced by deepening doctrinal divisions between the 
Catholic Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church of Byzantium. 

Thus, as a result of the many problems Rome already faced in 
its final years, the Germanic tribes that had defeated imperial 
defenses to seize Italy, Gaul, Britain, Spain, and North Africa did not 
overthrow it. They merely dealt the death blow to an ailing empire 
in the west. Yet even during the lowest point of the early medieval 
period that followed, the so-called Dark Ages of the sixth and sev¬ 
enth centuries when western Europe sank into a state of near barba¬ 
rism, the geographic integrity of the late empire remained largely 
intact. The new Germanic chieftains who now ruled the successor 
barbarian kingdoms established upon the rubble of Rome’s former 
grandeur continued to recognize the authority of the Byzantine em¬ 
peror in Constantinople, the final vestige of imperial majesty. They 
also endeavored as best they could to maintain Roman institutions, 
government structures, culture, and diplomacy, though ultimately 
their efforts failed. Even the Mediterranean remained open to sea¬ 
borne trade and a lively commerce, using a money economy. 

All this interaction ended in the mid-seventh century, however, 
with the explosion of Islam in the Middle East and its rapid spread 
from India to Iberia with the formidable armies and navies of the 
expanding Arab empire in succeeding decades. Under the Frankish 
emperor Charlemagne (a.d. 768-814), western Europe once more 
achieved a measure of internal unity. But much of that unity dis¬ 
solved after his death because of a decline in royal Frankish lead¬ 
ership and the onset of a fresh series of external assaults by different 
warrior groups from the north, east, and south. Thus besieged, 
Europe remained for many years a relatively isolated and self- 
contained society whose knowledge of what lay beyond its geo¬ 
graphic boundaries was more myth and fantasy than fact. 

By the mid- to late Middle Ages, however, this situation began 
to change slowly as some people living along the Atlantic Ocean’s 
eastern shores looked outward once more. The most adventuresome 
mariners at this time were the Vikings. Initially raiders, these fierce 
men from the region of modern-day Scandinavia plied the water in 
open, shallow-draft ships, penetrating Europe’s many river systems 
and attacking settlements along every coast. They also discovered 
and settled, whether by accident or design, island after island in the 
North Atlantic. From Iceland, which they reached in a.d. 770, they 
sailed to Greenland in 982 and sighted North America in 986. 
Not until fifteen years later did they attempt to plant settlers at 
modern-day EAnse aux Meadows on the island of Newfoundland, 
known to the Vikings as Markland or Vineland. With the onset of a 

Historical Overview 

colder climate after 1200, however, the Greenland colonies declined, 
while the settlement in North America was abandoned when fighting 
broke out with the local native population. Within a few years, the 
only memory of Vineland was preserved in the Norse sagas. 

Farther south, there is evidence from Muslim sources not long 
afterward of attempts by Mansa Muhammad, ruler of the west Afri¬ 
can empire of Mali, to venture into the Atlantic. In the late thirteenth 
or early fourteenth century, he launched a fleet of four hundred small 
craft with men, supplies, and stern instructions not to return until it 
had reached the far side of the ocean or had exhausted its food and 
water. When a single vessel limped back to report that the rest of the 
expedition had been lost at sea, undaunted by this grim news 
Muhammad himself sailed with a second, even larger fleet that disap¬ 
peared without trace. Ffad he succeeded in reaching the Caribbean, 
however, the African ruler would have found the future West Indies 
already inhabited by the Arawak people, originally Amerindians from 
South America who had colonized the major island chains of the 
Greater and Lesser Antilles, going as far north as the Bahamas. Their 
route was later followed by the Carib Indians, who eventually over¬ 
ran the earlier Arawak settlements, undertook voyages to the North 
American mainland, and lent their name to the entire region. 

It was also around this time that western Europe began to 
shake off its former lethargy and to look outward once again, 
although its single major attempt to expand beyond its frontiers after 
centuries of social upheaval, political turmoil, and external attack— 
that is, the Crusades to free the Ffoly Land from Muslim rule—had 
largely failed by 1277. Even so, contact with the outside world was 
not completely lost, for the Mediterranean had been reopened to 
European movement. Hence, the goods of Asia and Africa first 
encountered by crusading armies still made their way to medieval 
courts via new networks of trade; the books of Muslim scholars were 
studied in medieval universities; and Europeans ventured fairly far 
afield throughout the Near and Far East during the thirteenth and 
early fourteenth centuries, when the great Mongol Empire provided 
security and stability from China’s Pacific coast to Europe’s eastern 
boundaries. The Venetian Marco Polo is only the most famous of 
many travelers of this era. Nevertheless, western contact with non- 
Western societies remained limited until European seafarers under¬ 
took their initial voyages of exploration in the early 1400s. 

In any case, by 1450 when Portuguese exploration of the west 
coast of Africa was still in its infancy, much had been accomplished. 
Not only had most of the islands of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian 
Oceans been discovered and settled, but also seaborne trading 
patterns had developed in many areas of the globe, especially in 


maritime Asia where the intricate commercial system united peoples 
across the region. Commerce similarly linked native societies 
throughout the Americas, though on a much smaller scale, while sea¬ 
farers routinely traded among island groups in the central and west¬ 
ern Pacific over well-established routes. On the other hand, no one 
had yet crossed the Pacific from either direction. Because of the wide 
Atlantic barrier, the civilizations of what later became known as the 
Old World in Europe and the New in the Americas also remained 
ignorant of each other’s existence. As a result, contact between peo¬ 
ples of both hemispheres and Oceania was sporadic at best, where 
contact existed at all. 

By 1500 this situation had begun to change dramatically. Still 
imbued with the old crusading spirit and eager to find a direct sea 
route to Asian markets that would bypass the Muslim and Italian 
middlemen who dominated the Mediterranean trade, Portuguese 
mariners sponsored by the Crown found their way around the 
African continent to the Indian Ocean and the rich ports of the East 
that lay beyond. Meanwhile, Spanish explorers or those employed by 
Spain, also hoping to reach the fabled Orient, crossed the Atlantic to 
discover the Americas instead. From these beginnings followed the 
establishment of new sea lanes that eventually linked the lands and 
societies of the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans. These new net¬ 
works fostered direct contact between the Western and non-Western 
worlds, which intensified commercial and cross-cultural interaction 
between them over time. They also promoted sustained and more 
systematic encounters with peoples on a far grander geographic scale 
than ever before. In short, the early Portuguese and Spanish voyages 
of discovery, followed by those of England, France, and the United 
Provinces (or Dutch Netherlands), increased worldwide interaction 
and inaugurated a genuinely global economy in which seaborne 
goods from almost every corner of the earth reached markets in 
distant lands. 

This sudden burst of maritime activity was produced by a com¬ 
bination of coincidences and events. To begin with, Europe after 
1300 was no longer the narrow, inward-looking world of earlier 
times. The restoration of trade in the Mediterranean, the growing 
taste for the spices and luxury goods of Asia, and the written 
accounts of Polo and his fellow travelers contributed to a growing 
interest in distant lands. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Mongol 
Empire in the late fourteenth century, followed by the conquest of 
Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, resulted not just in 
political instability and insecurity of travel that threatened to cut 
overland contacts with Asia. It led as well to rising prices and 
increased costs of trade with Muslim merchants of the Middle East, 

Historical Overview 

who dictated the terms of commerce and transacted business only 
with Italian middlemen from the city-states of Renaissance Venice 
and Genoa. At the same time, the Muslim victory over Byzantium 
intensified the old hostility between Christendom and Islam, which 
rekindled the crusading spirit in the minds of many Europeans. All 
these conditions provided more incentives to seek new routes to the 
sources of silk and spices in Asia, where new allies against Islam 
might be found, as well. 

What appeared to be unrelated events also combined at this 
time to enable voyages of exploration. The recovery of ancient Greek 
and Latin texts on geography, mathematics, and astronomy—lost 
since the fall of Rome—provided important new sources of knowl¬ 
edge vital to the science of navigation. Advances in shipbuilding and 
design similarly helped, such as the development of the caravel in 
Portugal and Spain. This sturdy, seaworthy vessel, capable of sailing 
well both before and into the wind and of carrying large cargoes, 
was better suited for long voyages across dangerous seas out of sight 
of land for weeks at a time than any other ships of the day. Western 
Europe thus had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to open 
new routes to the fabulous east and to discover new continents to 
the west by the beginning of the fifteenth century. 

Europe’s maritime exploration from 1415 to 1800 is of special 
interest, therefore, because it began a revolution that profoundly 
altered the course of world history and in many ways determined it. 
Certainly, note numerous scholars, Europeans benefited most from 
this effort, trading profitably around the globe, claiming or conquer¬ 
ing vast territories in the New World, and founding colonies from 
Virginia to Botany Bay. In the process, their lifestyles changed as 
their tastes became more cosmopolitan. Thus by the mid-eighteenth 
century, writes modern historian John E. Wills Jr., Europe had 
become a consumer society of sugar, tea, coffee, porcelain, and tex¬ 
tiles (e.g., silk, muslins, calicoes, and chintzes), whose centers of 
production were in Asia and the Americas. To illustrate the conspic¬ 
uous nature of that consumption, he playfully describes a fictitious 
London merchant on a fine summer morning in 1730, who 

flings back the chintz quilt, very old-fashioned but a beloved fam¬ 
ily heirloom, straightens his muslin night-shirt and puts on his 
Chinese silk dressing-gown as the maid enters with the tea, milk 
and sugar. She trips, and the newly bought matched blue and 
white china tea service is smashed. There will be a row. It will be 
worse because his wife has been in a bad mood ever since she 
learned that her country cousins can buy from peddlers patterns 
of calico and chintz not yet seen in London, and finer teas. It is a 
relief to think that he must meet a promising new customer at 


Garraway’s coffee house this afternoon, and that with any luck 

the meeting will go on later into the evening. 2 

At the same time, European influence in world affairs increased 
steadily after 1500. But not until the nineteenth century, when indus¬ 
trialization, powerful weaponry, and more efficient means of trans¬ 
portation and communication enabled the West to assert its political 
and economic might around the globe, would it dominate interna¬ 
tional relations. To be sure, the Portuguese, Spaniards, English, 
French, and Dutch established large commercial empires in the 
Indian Ocean basin and founded colonies in the Americas. But in 
Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and China they traded solely with the 
indulgence of local authorities and exercised little influence beyond 
the coastline. Clearly, Europeans posed no threat to the powerful, 
land-based states of the Middle or Far East, and they knew it. Only 
at sea did they predominate, having all the advantages of greater nav¬ 
igational skill and superior naval technology. 

Nevertheless, Europeans played a far more prominent role in 
global affairs between 1500 and 1800 than their forebears had, clos¬ 
ing a long epoch during which the trend of historical influences had 
moved predominantly from east to west. Since ancient and medieval 
times, most expansion by land or water had come from Asia. It was 
there, after all, that the most advanced technologies, many of the 
most dynamic systems of belief, the mightiest states, and the richest 
networks of trade could be found. Hence, little did anyone recognize 
at the time that when the Portuguese and Spaniards launched their 
first voyages of exploration in the fifteenth century, they began a 
new era that not only led to the gradual creation of an increasingly 
interdependent world but also opened the way to the growth of 
Western hegemony that culminated with the subsequent Age of 
Imperialism, when Europe became the global center of power, 
wealth, and technological innovation. It was tiny Portugal, however, 
that pioneered the transformation of European relations with the rest 
of the world in a way that changed the course of history. 


1. Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan: The Overall Survey of the Oceans 
Shores, 1433, J. V. G. Mills, trans. and ed. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1970; 
reprint, Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1993), 69. 

2. John E. Wills Jr., “European Consumption and Asian Production in 
the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in John Brewer and Roy Porter, 
eds., Consumption and the World of Goods (London: Routledge, 1993), 133. 


Portugal and the 
Search for a Sea 
Route to Asia 

In late 1498 or early 1499, Christopher Columbus wrote to his 
royal sponsors, Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, from the island of 
Hispaniola (modern Haiti). His purpose was to describe the results 
of his third voyage to the New World. In that letter, he admired the 
rival Portuguese for their exploration of the west African coastline to 
date, noting their firm resolve and crusading spirit despite the high 
financial and human costs. In particular, he praised the kings of 
Portugal for having had the courage 

to penetrate to Guinea and for the discovery of that land, and 
who have spent gold and people to such an extent that, if the 
whole population of the realm were numbered, it would be found 
that as many more as the half have died in Guinea, and still they 
persevered until there came to them from it that which is known, 
and this they began long ago and there is very little which brings 
them revenue. They have also dared to make conquests in Africa 
and to maintain their undertaking at Ceuta, Tangier, Aveilla and 
Alcazar, and continually to give battle to the Moors [Muslims], 
and all this at great expense, only to do something princely, for 
the service of God and for the increase of His dominion. 1 

Clearly, Columbus’s intention was to kindle in the Spanish monarchs 
the same degree of enthusiasm and support for voyages of explora¬ 
tion, especially his own. Little could he have known, however, that 
at the very moment he was writing to Ferdinand and Isabella, the 
Portuguese captain Vasco da Gama had already rounded the Cape of 
Good Hope to reach Asia and its riches. 

The first real attempts at exploration actually began in the late 
thirteenth century, when some southern Europeans ventured into the 


Atlantic Ocean, using the same maritime techniques they had 
acquired from many years’ experience of seafaring in the Mediterra¬ 
nean. In 1291, two Genoese brothers named Vivaldi set out from 
their home port in northwest Italy with the apparent intention of 
sailing around Africa to reach India. Their ships disappeared without 
trace, their fate unknown. Undaunted by that loss, during the four¬ 
teenth and early fifteenth centuries other Genoese, Portuguese, 
Flemish, and Spanish mariners sailed frequently into Atlantic waters, 
thus continuing what the late Vivaldi brothers had started, whether 
consciously or not. As a result, in rapid succession the islands of the 
Madeiras, the Azores, and the Canaries were discovered, conquered 
from their original inhabitants (where there were any), and colo¬ 
nized by the year 1439. Two of these island groups, the Azores and 
the Canaries, even became outposts for future exploration of the 
Atlantic, including the voyages of Columbus. Although limited in 
range and success, these early ventures indicate that the idea— 
however ill formed—of finding a viable sea route around the African 
continent to Asia had begun to evolve in the European imagination. 

It was the Portuguese who slowly gave that idea clearer defini¬ 
tion. A tiny, impoverished country located on the western fringe of 
Europe and with a lengthy Atlantic coastline, Portugal was land¬ 
locked by a high mountain range along its eastern boundary that di¬ 
vided it from Spain. Hence, any desire to increase its territory in that 
direction was out of the question. Yet expansion was necessary, for 
with little arable land of its own Portugal needed better agricultural 
opportunities to feed its small but growing population. It also 
wanted the financial benefits of trade. Already the kingdom had 
turned toward the Atlantic to satisfy both needs. Fishing had sup¬ 
plemented its meager food supplies for many generations, while 
Tondon, Bordeaux, Antwerp, and other major coastal cities of north¬ 
ern Europe had become regular ports of call for Portuguese ships 
trading in salt, olive oil, cork, grain, hides, and fish. Both the sea 
and seafaring were therefore vital to the country’s economic welfare. 

But like other European states of the day that sought access to 
the spices, luxury goods, and gold that reached North Africa and the 
Middle East through trade, Portugal faced the challenge of Islam. 
That challenge, however, was not direct; for unlike its Spanish neigh¬ 
bor, whose long struggle to expel the Muslims from the Iberian 
Peninsula would not end until 1492 with the conquest of Granada, 
Portugal had completed its Reconquista by 1249. Furthermore, 
because the kingdom faced the Atlantic, it was isolated from any im¬ 
mediate threat posed by the emerging power of the Ottoman Empire 
in the eastern Mediterranean. Yet the Portuguese were barred 

Portugal and the Search for a Sea Route to Asia 


increasingly from trade with the Middle East not just by Muslim 
merchants who controlled the markets from Alexandria to Constanti¬ 
nople but also by the naval force and expertise of fellow Christian, 
Italian middlemen. They alone transacted business in these ports and 
hence dominated much of the shipping trade in eastern goods to the 
rest of Europe and the wealth that trade produced. Muslims similarly 
controlled the lucrative caravan routes through Central Asia, north¬ 
ern India, and the Arabian peninsula, as well as those that crossed 
the great Sahara to the port cities of North Africa, along which these 
goods moved. 

The sources of spices, fine textiles, and gold were certainly 
known to late medieval Europeans, however vague or incomplete 
their understanding of world geography was at this time. Silk came 
from China, Marco Polo’s Cathay—a land of fabulous wealth, 
enlightened government, and teeming population. Pepper (so-called 
grains of paradise) and cinnamon came from India, along with gem¬ 
stones and excellent cotton cloth. Gold, ivory, and slaves came 
through the Sahara from the west African kingdoms of the Niger 
River delta. If the goal, then, was to obtain access to these goods in 
greater abundance and at cheaper prices, then the means to that goal 
was to find a direct route to the sources of these goods, in order to 
bypass the Muslim and Italian merchants who controlled commerce 
on land and in the Mediterranean. This search was propelled still 
further by enduring hostility between Christianity and Islam, and the 
hope of forming an alliance with Prester John, a legendary Christian 
ruler located somewhere in the east, who (it was believed) could 
strike the Turks unexpectedly in the flank. 

Portugal and Coastal Africa: The Dawn of Discovery 

Key to success in both cases—the search for wealth and for 
Christian allies against Islam—was the sea, and Portugal with its 
long maritime history was first to grasp that fact. But the decision to 
invest significant resources in voyages of exploration that were dan¬ 
gerous, costly, and promised uncertain rewards evolved slowly. The 
kingdom’s goals, built upon its close familiarity with Atlantic waters 
gained from centuries of deep-sea fishing and its lengthy tradition of 
anti-Muslim warfare, were far more modest in scope. The Portuguese 
strove not to discover new lands or even a viable sea route to Asia; 
that would come in due course. They aimed instead to launch a new 
crusade against the Muslim Berbers of North Africa, who happened 
also to monopolize commercial contacts with the gold-producing 


kingdoms of the Niger Delta via the Sahara. The object, in other 
words, was to break that monopoly by seizing control of the North 
African coast, and to outflank the Muslims’ caravan trade on land at 
the same time by establishing direct seaborne relations with west 
African rulers. Commerce and the crusading spirit motivated Portugal’s 
early maritime expansion in the name of God and of profit. 

The Muslims themselves provided the opportunity. When the 
government of Morocco in northwestern Africa showed signs of 
weakness in the early fifteenth century, the Portuguese attacked. 
They began by seizing the stronghold of Ceuta in 1415. This capture 
ended Muslim control over the sea lanes of the western Mediterra¬ 
nean. There followed the conquest of several more ports along 
Morocco’s Atlantic coast, where Portuguese soldiers saw firsthand 
(and quickly plundered) the riches acquired by Muslim merchants 
from trade. Hampered, however, by few resources, limited man¬ 
power, and an enemy who remained strong despite successive losses, 
the Portuguese were unable to penetrate farther inland to gain imme¬ 
diate access to the trade in gold and slaves. Nevertheless, the cam¬ 
paign provided them with better information about the caravan 
routes that brought these commodities from the African states south 
of the Sahara. 

Any attempt to reach those states by sea had to be organized 
into a sustained and systematic effort if it were to succeed. It also 
required royal sponsorship in the form of ships, men, and money 
under effective leadership. The task thus fell to Prince Henry (1394- 
1460), third son of the Portuguese monarch John I (r. 1385-1433) 
and a veteran of the Ceuta campaign, whose noble spirit (wrote the 
court chronicler Gomes Eannes de Azurara in 1450) “by a sort of 
natural constraint, was ever urging him both to begin and to carry 
out very great deeds.” 2 Because he devoted the remainder of his life 
to patronizing mariners and promoting their voyages of exploration 
down the coast of Africa into the south Atlantic, he is known to his¬ 
tory as Henry “the Navigator.” Otherwise, his personal experience of 
the sea was limited to three naval expeditions against Muslim strong¬ 
holds: Ceuta in 1415, Tangier in 1437, and Alcecer-Ceguer in 1458 
when he was sixty-four years old. 

Yet, despite the pivotal role he played in launching the early 
voyages of exploration, and for which he is rightly regarded as 
father of the great Age of Discovery when Europe took its first tenta¬ 
tive steps toward global dominion that ultimately produced the 
interdependent world of modern times, Henry was a thoroughly 
medieval man. His perspective on the world was shaped by chivalric 
ideals and the anti-Muslim crusading spirit. These two traditions 

Portugal and the Search for a Sea Route to Asia 


combined formally in 1420 when, at age twenty-six, the prince was 
appointed Grand Master of the Order of Christ. This chivalric soci¬ 
ety, sponsored by the pope, required Henry to lead the chaste and 
ascetic life of a crusader. But although the order’s chief purpose was 
the conversion of pagans to Christianity, symbolized by the red cross 
imprinted on ships’ sails and soldiers’ shields, the funds made 
available to him as Grand Master largely financed his great enter¬ 
prise of discovery. 

The search for converts and Christian allies in the long struggle 
against Islam was not, however, Henry’s sole motive for exploration. 
He also hoped to make new discoveries that would prove profitable 
to the Portuguese Crown. The prince, reported Azurara and other 
contemporaries, had “a wish to know the land that lay beyond the 
isles of the Canaries and the Cape called Bojador [see below], for up 
to his time, neither by writings nor by the memory of men, was 
known with any certainty” what lay in the regions farther south. 3 
Seeing also “that no other prince took any pains in [resolving] this 
matter, he sent out his own ships against those parts, to have mani¬ 
fest certainty of them all.” 4 More than anything else, Henry was 
eager to reach the so-called River of Gold—a reference, perhaps, to 
the Senegal River along Africa’s Guinea coast, or even to the region 
of the Niger Delta farther south and east, about which he had prob¬ 
ably learned from the Moors at Ceuta. Hence, his early explorations 
were directed toward that result. Only later did Portuguese mariners 
and their royal sponsors make finding a sea route to India around 
the African continent an explicit goal. Henry’s interest in exploration 
thus derived from a narrower focus and a mixture of motives that 
included religion, profit, and simple curiosity. 

Moreover, that interest developed early in the prince who, as 
the appointed governor of Ceuta following its capture, always had 
ships at his command for the city’s defense. By 1418, he had begun 
to sponsor voyages on a small scale. In that year, two of his captains 
“rediscovered” the Madeira Islands, which Genoese sailors had found 
the previous century. Henry immediately ordered their colonization. 
These islands not only served as a strategic base for future explora¬ 
tion but also contributed significantly to the Portuguese economy 
after sugar production was introduced from Sicily in midcentury. The 
following year, 1419, Henry returned to Lisbon and his father’s royal 
court where, in reward for recent services, he was granted various 
honors. Among these was the governorship of the Algarve, Portugal’s 
southernmost province. 

There, on the rocky promontory of Sagres at the tip of Cape St. 
Vincent, Henry established a minor court of his own. In time his 


household became an improvised center for navigation that brought 
together seamen, cartographers, astronomers, shipwrights, and instru¬ 
ment makers—the men who would help him realize Portugal’s over¬ 
seas ambitions. At Sagres, the prince and his staff gathered whatever 
information they could on the Muslims’ trans-Saharan trade, much of 
it from Italian and especially Genoese merchants who had learned 
some of its secrets. Also collected and studied were maps and sea 
charts of remarkable accuracy, many of which had been crafted in 
the fourteenth century and earlier by skillful Jewish cartographers. 
Though barely tolerated by Christians or Muslims and subject to 
periodic persecution from both religious groups, Jewish merchants 
and scholars moved with relative freedom between the two dominant 
societies of the Mediterranean world, owing to their importance in 
the commerce of goods and of learning. Added to these sources of 
knowledge was new information accumulated over time from the 
experience of mariners, other travelers, and captives purposely seized 
from local populations for questioning about the regions from which 
they came. Those firsthand accounts of people, places, and routes 
expanded Portugal’s geographic horizons. 

In 1420 from the nearby port of Lagos, Prince Henry began to 
dispatch maritime expeditions to discover more of Morocco’s Atlantic 
coast. Hugging the shore and never venturing far from land in 
uncharted waters, successive voyages pushed steadily southward. But 
headway was slow, owing partly to conditions of sea travel in the age 
of sail, partly to the lack of accurate geographic knowledge, but 
partly also to the superstitions of Portuguese crews. They feared, for 
example, that the south Atlantic was an unnavigable “Green Sea of 
Darkness,” as Arab geographers had called it. They had heard tales 
that its waters were boiling hot and were subject, moreover, to 
strong currents that would prevent any vessel that entered from 
returning home. It is more than likely, however, that these myths 
were spread on purpose by Moroccan and Arab traders familiar with 
the area in order to deter the Christians from intervening in a region 
long served by the Muslims’ trans-Saharan caravan routes. Thus, 
hand in hand with the early conquest of the seas also went the con¬ 
quest of superstition. At all events, it took fourteen years for Henry’s 
captains to sail beyond southern Morocco to Cape Bojador—the 
Bulging Cape—which was finally rounded in 1434. 

Overcoming this geographic obstacle was a singular achieve¬ 
ment, though some modern historians now assert on the basis of 
existing evidence that Cape Juby, 140 miles north of Cape Bojador, 
was the actual site. 5 Whatever the case, because this headland 
was the southernmost known limit of the west African coastline, 

Portugal and the Search for a Sea Route to Asia 


Portuguese sailors had trembled to sail beyond it. Nor were their 
fears necessarily unfounded. The strong Canary Current, for instance, 
made sailing very hazardous in the channel next to Cape Juby—itself 
fringed by reefs—because of that current’s tendency to flow obliquely 
against the main shore rather than parallel to it. The likely result was 
shipwreck for any captain who failed to remain vigilant in these 
waters. The frequency of fog, the violence of the waves, and the 
presence of shallows on Cape Bojador’s northern side were likewise 
obstacles to navigation. In addition, the closer sailors approached the 
equator, the lower the north star appeared on the horizon until it 
vanished altogether. Yet knowing the position of that star in the night 
skies and its relation to other constellations was key to navigation. 
Hence, conquering Cape Bojador (or Juby), where the north star was 
already in descent and eight hundred more miles of desert stretched 
farther south on shore, meant overcoming a significant physical and 
psychological hurdle that had impeded Prince Henry’s program of 

Shortly after this triumph, however, the Portuguese experienced 
a number of setbacks. Their attempt to seize the nearby Canary 
Islands, ongoing since the 1420s, finally ended in failure when the 
pope confirmed Spain’s rival claim in 1436. The same year, an expe¬ 
dition returning from coastal Africa south of Cape Bojador 
announced the discovery of a very large river estuary. This, they had 
presumed, was the legendary River of Gold (Rio de Oro), which 
Henry had been so eager to locate. But it turned out to be nothing 
more than a large bay that thrust thirty miles inland and was divided 
from the Atlantic by a long peninsula. The Portuguese had much 
better luck at the end of the decade, when mariners under the prince’s 
sponsorship located and began to colonize (in 1439) the Azores, a 
group of islands a third of the way across the Atlantic. Significantly, 
these expeditions to the west represented Europe’s first recorded 
long-distance voyages out of sight of land. 

During the last twenty years of Henry’s life, his program of 
exploration progressed rapidly, as new discoveries were made and 
commercial relations were established with local populations. The 
prince’s immediate goal was always to find an African gold supply to 
enrich the Portuguese Crown, strengthen the kingdom’s revenues, 
and make the voyages of exploration pay for themselves. Part of that 
goal was achieved in 1441 when an expedition returning from a 
point south of Cape Blanco along the Guinea coast brought back a 
number of black African slaves. They were presented to Henry, along 
with a small quantity of gold, in return for his freeing of several 
Muslim captives. 


This event heralded Portugal’s formal entry into the African 
slave trade, until then dominated by Muslim Arabs. That trade 
became sufficiently extensive by 1448 for the prince to order con¬ 
struction of a fort and warehouses on the recently discovered island 
of Arguim, now part of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. At this 
coastal site, Portuguese merchants dealt with Arab dealers who came 
“to trade for merchandise of various kinds, ... and above all, corn, 
for they are always short of food ... in exchange [for] slaves whom 
the Arabs bring from the land of the Blacks, and gold tiber [dust].” 6 
Arguim was the first European trading post established overseas. It 
was also the first of many such depots, called “factories” ( feitoria ), 
subsequently built along the shores of sub-Saharan Africa, the most 
famous of which is Sao Jorge de Mina (est. 1482) in modern Ghana. 
Estimates are that by the turn of the sixteenth century, as many as 
150,000 black slaves had been exported to Lisbon. They were 
exchanged for wheat, textiles, metalwork, horses, leather, and glass 
beads with Muslim merchants or local chieftains, who acquired their 
fellow natives for sale as human cargo from raids on villages of the 
interior. Over the next 250 years, more slaves would follow in the 
tens of thousands as other European countries entered the lucrative 
commerce in human flesh. 

Though clearly important, Portugal’s entry into the slave trade 
was not the only significant development of the early 1440s. Another 
was Henry’s success in securing three edicts that gave him complete 
authority over all voyages down the west African shoreline. The first, 
issued by the pope in December 1442, granted a general indulgence 
to the knights and friars of the Order of Christ, as well as to other 
Christians who joined the crusade against the Muslims. It mattered 
little whether or not the prince personally led these men. As far as 
the papacy was concerned, Portuguese activities along the Moroccan 
and Guinea coasts under Henry’s command were simply a continua¬ 
tion of Christendom’s struggle against Islam in a different locale. The 
second, and perhaps more important edict, issued by the Portuguese 
Crown in October 1443, awarded the prince a personal monopoly 
over all navigation south of Cape Bojador, whether for commercial 
or military purposes. That grant was later reconfirmed and its terms 
expanded by a subsequent decree of Henry’s nephew, King Afonso V 
(r. 1438-1481), published in 1449. Essentially, these three docu¬ 
ments established Portugal’s maritime expansion as an exclusive state 
enterprise, organized and financed by the Crown with papal approval. 

Meanwhile, Henry’s expeditions into the south Atlantic contin¬ 
ued to make progress. By 1444 or 1445 his mariners had reached 
the mouth of the Senegal River, which they partially explored. In 

Portugal and the Search for a Sea Route to Asia 


addition, they had rounded Cape Verde (Green Cape, so-called 
because of its abundant vegetation) and discovered the island group 
named for that promontory located not far from the African main¬ 
land. This whole region marked the threshold of the well-watered 
and more densely populated territories south of the Sahara. It also 
represented the geographic boundary between the Berber and Arab 
tribes of the desert and black Africa proper. The differences between 
these two areas impressed contemporary chroniclers, one of whom 
marveled that south of the Senegal river, “all men are very black, tall 
and big, their bodies well formed; and the whole country green, full 
of trees, and fertile; while on [the Arab] side, the men are brownish, 
small, lean, ill-nourished, and small in stature: the country sterile 
and arid.” 7 Within a year or two of these discoveries, the Gambia 
River was also sighted and later explored. Very quickly, additional 
factories established along the Guinea coast for the purpose of trade 
were exporting gold, slaves, and other goods (ostrich eggs, musk, 
sweet resins, oryx skins, etc.) back to Lisbon. 

This commercial activity was a departure from earlier Portu¬ 
guese actions, which, in addition to exploration, had included spo¬ 
radic assaults against Muslim villages along the Moroccan coast or 
quick shallow raids into the Sahara’s hinterland. The reasons for 
this strategic change are not difficult to ascertain. To begin with, 
Portuguese merchants who partly funded Henry’s expeditions were 
more interested in opening normal trade relations with communities 
along Africa’s Atlantic shores than in attacking them. Certainly, slaves 
or other commodities were procured more easily and cheaply 
through barter with Muslim and black African dealers than through 
force of arms. In addition, making war on the people of the sparsely 
populated deserts of coastal Morocco was far less risky than fighting 
the much more numerous inhabitants of Guinea, who were very 
capable of repulsing the small forces that the Portuguese were able 
to put ashore. Trade was also seen as an alternative means, realistic 
or not, to extend Portugal’s influence in Muslim lands and to convert 
the local people to Christianity in accordance with the crusading 
mission against Islam and Henry’s official duties as Grand Master of 
the Order of Christ. 

Hence, in 1448 the prince issued instructions that prohibited 
all further military actions against any part of Guinea. In future, 
arms were to be used solely for self-defense. The policy of peaceful 
trading was reaffirmed in 1455, when additional instructions 
restricted Portuguese mariners to purchasing slaves from Arab and 
native merchants, rather than seizing them by force. Very soon, how¬ 
ever, the trade in gold surpassed that in human beings, as contact 


was established with the commercial networks that linked west 
Africa with the flourishing caravan trade across the Sahara. In fact, 
by 1457, enough of the precious metal was being exported from 
Africa to Lisbon for the Portuguese Crown to mint its first gold coin. 
(Hitherto, only copper currency like the ceuti, which commemorated 
the capture of Ceuta, had been used because of the kingdom’s pov¬ 
erty.) Called the cruzado (crusade), the new coin was further evi¬ 
dence of the intricate connection between the religious and secular 
motives that had inspired the early voyages of exploration. 

Otherwise, the 1450s were largely undistinguished by important 
new discoveries, as Henry’s focus now turned away from new explora¬ 
tions in favor of developing trade relations with regions already con¬ 
tacted. Consequently, the last major voyages undertaken with his 
support occurred just shortly before his death in 1460. In 1458, an 
expedition sailed beyond Cape Verde, the westernmost point of Africa. 
This voyage was followed by a second expedition two years later that 
traveled as far as the coast of Sierra Leone, named after the roaring 
sound of the thunderstorms encountered there and the “lionlike” 
appearance of its mountains. Shortly afterward, Cape Palmas on the 
coast of modern-day Liberia was reached, making it the farthest point 
south that Portuguese seafarers explored during Henry’s lifetime. 

Yet because of their significance for the future of Portugal’s 
overseas empire, more noteworthy than these final maritime achieve¬ 
ments of the prince’s career were the contents of three new papal 
bulls issued in 1452, 1455, and 1456, respectively. Taken together, 
they constituted what historians generally regard as the “charter of 
Portuguese imperialism.” Under the terms of the decrees, the Crown 
of Portugal was granted an exclusive monopoly of navigation, trade, 
and fishing not just in the large seaborne domain its subjects had 
already explored and subdued, but also in regions they might con¬ 
quer in years to come, even as far as the East Indies. That monopoly 
included the pope’s general permission to attack Muslims and 
pagans, reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, seize their goods 
and territories—all in the name of Jesus Christ—or to trade with 
them if that were more expedient. Portuguese monarchs were simi¬ 
larly authorized to build churches and monasteries, provide them 
with priests to administer the sacraments, and exercise spiritual 
jurisdiction over all regions they presently controlled or might 
control in future, from the coasts of west Africa to India. Every other 
European nation was strictly prohibited, meanwhile, from infringing 
upon, or interfering in any way with, Portugal’s monopoly of 
discovery, trade, and conquest. 8 

Portugal and the Search for a Sea Route to Asia 


A final feature of the three bulls was their recognition of Prince 
Henry’s pivotal role in the work of exploration and expansion since 
1419. The pope praised him as a zealous soldier of Christ and de¬ 
fender of the faith who had taken Christianity into unknown regions, 
there to convince Muslims and heathens alike to accept the religion 
as their own. He was likewise commended for the colonization of 
the Madeiras and Azores Islands, and for his tireless sponsorship of 
expeditions southward to explore the Guinea coast. The papal bull 
of 1455 was also the first document to credit the prince explicitly 
with the intention of circumnavigating Africa in search of a direct 
sea route to India. But Henry did not live long to enjoy this high 
praise. Furthermore, at his death in 1460 he was barely able to pay 
his debts. It is one of history’s great ironies that despite the many 
revenues he collected from a wide variety of sources (including the 
Order of Christ, monopolies on soap production and fishing, and the 
concession of all trade along the west African coast), that money 
barely met the heavy costs of maintaining a large household of 
retainers or of paying for the voyages of exploration. Both expendi¬ 
tures were enormous. 

The Gateway to India and Maritime Empire 

How Portugal’s enterprise of discovery and development of 
trade were handled during the remainder of the 1460s is unclear. At 
the end of the decade, however, King Afonso V resumed his late 
uncle’s work by engaging a rich Lisbon merchant named Fernao 
Gomes in 1469 to continue the voyages begun by Henry and his nav¬ 
igators. Awarded a generous contract by the Crown, which retained 
monopoly rights to certain valuable commodities, Gomes added 
another two thousand miles to the fourteen hundred miles of African 
coastline already explored. In the process, Portuguese ships crossed 
the equator for the first time in 1473, discovered the uninhabited 
island of Sao Tome, and penetrated the Gulf of Guinea, where they 
reconnoitered what later Europeans called the Gold Coast as it 
turned sharply toward the east. This region soon became the center 
of Portugal’s west African trade. In the meantime, Gomes turned a 
handsome personal profit. But when his contract expired in 1475, the 
royal monopoly on trade and exploration was entrusted to Afonso’s 
son and heir, who ascended the throne as John II (r. 1481-1495) six 
years later. Described by historians as an enthusiastic and farsighted 
imperialist with a genuine passion for Africa and its products, the 



new monarch also had a keen personal interest in trade development 
and voyages of discovery. 

It was under his sponsorship, in fact, that the southernmost tip 
of Africa was finally reached by Portuguese captain Bartolomeu Dias 
in December 1487. In command of two caravels and a supply ship 
that (it was hoped) carried sufficient stores to permit the circumnavi¬ 
gation of the continent in one effort, Dias sailed from Lisbon in 
August, following the usual sea routes down Africa’s west coast. After 
stopping at various points along the way, he landed on the shore of 
modern-day Namibia to claim the entire region for his monarch. But 
when he continued his voyage southward, contrary winds and a 
north-flowing current forced Dias to venture out into the Atlantic 
where, five hundred miles north of the south African tip, a fierce 
northerly gale blew his ships off course. For two weeks the small 
squadron sailed out of sight of land—a frightening experience in 
unknown waters—until it picked up westerly winds and resumed its 
course in expectation of reaching the African coast. When, however, 
Dias discovered that he could approach the mainland only by sailing 
northward, he realized that he had rounded the continent’s southern 
end. Ahead lay the Indian Ocean and the wealth of Asia. 

The captain then traveled eastward for several hundred more 
miles, going ashore briefly at Mossel Bay and a few other spots, 
before his exhausted crew compelled him to begin the homeward 
voyage. The country had little appeal, in any case. The natives of the 
region, recounted Duarte Pacheco Pereira in about 1565, were a 
“heathen, bestial people, [who] wear skins and sandals of raw 
hide.... There is no trade here, but there are many cows, goats and 
sheep and there is plenty of fish.” 9 On his way back to Portugal, 
meanwhile, Dias sighted a large promontory he dubbed the Cape of 
Storms—an accurate description of maritime conditions in the 
area—but which King John II later renamed the Cape of Good Hope, 
in anticipation of finding a sea route to India. 

Dias’s voyage had opened a gateway to that goal, for “at this 
promontory,” continued Pereira, “Africa comes to an end in the 
[Atlantic] Ocean, and is divided from Asia.” 10 Of equal importance, 
the explorer had helped to improve upon navigational techniques for 
use in the south Atlantic. Earlier in the fifteenth century, Portuguese 
mariners had difficulty finding winds and currents that moved in the 
direction they wanted to go. In an age of sail, their vessels had to 
contend with both forces of nature, for even in a landlocked sea such 
as the Mediterranean it was almost impossible to travel directly from 
one port to another. These difficulties help to explain many of the 
navigational hazards and related fears the Portuguese had earlier 

Portugal and the Search for a Sea Route to Asia 


associated with rounding Capes Juby and Bojador. Gradually, how¬ 
ever, their seamen had learned to tack along a course, instead of 
struggling against prevailing conditions. Building upon Dias’s experi¬ 
ence in particular, they discovered that by sailing due south from the 
Cape Verde Islands and away from Africa, outbound ships could 
avoid the unfavorable winds of the Gulf of Guinea. The strong west¬ 
erlies encountered at a point farther south and west of the African 
continent would then carry vessels around the Cape of Good Hope 
and into the Indian Ocean. Those that were homeward bound fol¬ 
lowed the same route in reverse, sailing northwest into the Atlantic 
to the latitude of the Azores Islands, where other westerly winds 
would blow them back to Portugal. 

The Dias expedition also effectively ended the first phase of 
Portuguese exploration. For most of the fifteenth century, gaining 
control of Africa’s shores from Morocco to the Niger Delta on the 
Gold Coast had been the major focus of the kingdom’s maritime 
efforts. During the 1460s and 1470s, as a result of these voyages, 
relations were opened with local rulers and fortified factories were 
constructed at various points until, by 1500, Portuguese merchants 
had replaced the Muslim Arabs as the dominant commercial agents 
in the region. Otherwise, no serious attempt was made to penetrate 
the African interior because of the very real dangers of native resis¬ 
tance and deadly disease. Even the coastal trading stations built along 
the shores were unhealthy for Europeans and occasionally vulnerable 
to attack. But because of their commercial importance, these factories 
had to be staffed and maintained, despite the high cost in human life 
noted by Columbus in his letter of 1498. In the meantime, colonists 
had settled on Portugal’s island possessions in the east Atlantic from 
the Azores to Sao Tome. There they built lucrative sugar cane planta¬ 
tions, worked by black Africans purchased from native slave traders 
on the Guinea coast. Not until later in the century, therefore, did the 
focus of Portuguese maritime efforts begin to shift explicitly toward 
the circumnavigation of Africa—achieved finally by Dias—in search 
of a viable sea route to Asia. 

A full decade passed before the second phase of Portugal’s 
imperial program began. It opened in 1497 with Vasco da Gama’s 
inaugural voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and across the 
Indian Ocean to the port of Calicut on India’s Malabar Coast. Yet this 
new phase had less to do with the discovery of unknown lands and 
waterways than with the imposition of Portuguese dominion over 
the well-established trade networks of maritime Asia. Two conditions 
were central to their success. First was their command of the sea in 
an area of the globe where China’s retreat behind its frontiers after 



1433 had produced a vacuum of naval power. If exploration had 
been their chief inspiration instead of diplomacy, the seven expedi¬ 
tions of Zheng He begun in 1405 might have placed the Ming 
Empire at the threshold of finding the direct sea route around Africa 
to reach Europe, rather than the Portuguese discovering the sea 
route to India. As it was, with Ming sea power increasing steadily at 
the time of the voyages, China was poised to become the dominant 
naval force of Asia. But its sudden withdrawal from international 
affairs overseas into self-imposed isolation within its own borders 
ended that prospect and created a void that no other Asian kingdom 
had the means or ambition to fill. The major states of Egypt, Persia, 
and landlocked Vijayanagar in southern India possessed no shipping 
at all, let alone armed shipping. Even such wealthy and strategic 
entrepots as Hormuz on the Persian Gulf and Malacca at the tip of 
the Malay Peninsula had no oceangoing warships for their protection. 
Yet their continuing prosperity depended entirely on waterborne 

The second condition for Portugal’s success was the geographic 
integrity and commercial unity of maritime Asia. These two qualities 
rendered it a highly cohesive and closely integrated region, despite 
the diversity of cultures that ranged around its shores from east 
Africa to Japan. But this unity also made maritime Asia extremely 
vulnerable to anybody with the determination and naval power to 
dominate it. The Portuguese possessed both, to which they added 
single-mindedness of purpose, pragmatism, complete ruthlessness, 
and unified command. Thus equipped, they rapidly defeated all local 
naval opposition, where any could be mustered, asserted their con¬ 
trol over Asian commerce, and forged a seaborne empire secured by 
their warships and a system of factories built at strategic points along 
the coasts from Mozambique to China. As a result, within a decade 
of their arrival and for most of the sixteenth century that followed, 
Portugal held the dominant position in maritime Asia. 

Initially, however, the Portuguese were peaceful and concerned 
only with trade, not conquest. When Vasco da Gama sailed from 
Lisbon in July 1497, he had been provided not just with maps and 
reports from other navigators, including Bartolomeu Dias, about 
what he might expect to find on the unexplored littoral of east 
Africa, but also with letters of introduction from the new king, 
Manuel I (r. 1495-1521), as well as a cargo of gold, pearls, woolen 
textiles, bronzeware, iron utensils, and additional merchandise that 
he hoped to exchange for pepper and other spices in Indian markets. 
Nor was this all. According to sixteenth-century chronicler Gaspar 
Correa, before his departure Da Gama had “asked the king to give 

Portugal and the Search for a Sea Route to Asia 


him a few prisoners who were condemned to death, in order to 
adventure them, or leave them in desolate countries, where, if they 
lived, they might be of great advantage when he returned,” by reason 
of the languages the|f might learn and the geographic knowledge 
they might acquire. 1 This was clearly a trade mission, in other 
words, not a naval expedition to discover and claim unknown terri¬ 
tories for the Portuguese Crown. 

The voyage lasted for more than ten months, during which the 
ships encountered such difficulties, wrote Correa, that the crews 
grew “sick with fear and hardship ... [and] clamored for putting 
back to Portugal, [saying] that they did not choose to die like stupid 
people who sought death with their own hands.” 12 At times, only Da 
Gama’s stern leadership thwarted threats of mutiny or desertion by 
seamen frightened at sailing in uncharted waters. Otherwise, the 
voyage might have failed. At all events, following the sea route to 
south Africa recommended by Dias, who accompanied the small fleet 
on part of its journey, Da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 
October and traveled slowly along the shores of east Africa as far as 
Mozambique and Mombasa. Welcomed warmly at first by the Muslim 
authorities in both places, his reception cooled abruptly when it was 
discovered that he and his crew were Christian and alleged to be 
thieves (wrote Correa), whose real purpose was to “spy [upon] the 
countries under the device that they were merchants, and ... after¬ 
wards come with a fleet and men to take possession of the [land].” 13 
All hope of obtaining Arab aid to cross the Indian Ocean thus evapo¬ 
rated. Farther north at Malindi, however, the Portuguese were given 
a friendlier reception and managed to hire a Muslim pilot to guide 
the fleet to Calicut, where it dropped anchor on 20 May 1498. 

The culture that Da Gama encountered in south India was 
sophisticated, wealthy, and cosmopolitan. It was also rich in the com¬ 
modities that Asia had to offer. A leading center of trade, Calicut’s 
markets sold pepper, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, and other spices, in 
addition to precious stones, fine gold jewelry, silks, and excellent 
cotton textiles. By comparison, the goods brought out by the Portu¬ 
guese were poor in quality and workmanship, and attracted very lit¬ 
tle interest among native dealers. Aided, however, by two Tunisian 
merchants fluent in Spanish and Italian who had been assigned to 
Da Gama as translators by the local authorities, he exchanged some 
items for a cargo of pepper. This earned a profit of nearly 3,000 per¬ 
cent when the small fleet returned to Europe in 1499 after a difficult 
voyage and the death of half the crew because of mishap or disease. 

Despite these losses, Da Gama had demonstrated beyond doubt 
that a sea route to Asia existed and could be profitably exploited. 



Inspired, moreover, by his captain’s success, King Manuel assumed 
the title of “Lord of the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce of 
Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India.” Though perhaps premature, this 
was no empty boast. On the contrary, the financial dividends of the 
voyage only encouraged the Portuguese to organize further expedi¬ 
tions regardless of the hazards of sea travel, in order to capitalize on 
the trade with India so recently opened. In the process, permanent 
links were forged between two regions of the world that had been 
separate hitherto, though at a heavy price. The Muslim Arabs—who 
(noted Correa) “were very powerful, and had so established and 
ingratiated themselves” in every port that they dominated maritime 
trade from east Africa and India as far as the Straits of Malacca— 
regarded the Europeans as interlopers on their preserve. 14 Nor did it 
take them long to appreciate the real threat posed by the Christian 
newcomers. Hence, the cordial reception initially extended to Da 
Gama by the Zamorin (from Samudri raja, meaning “lord of the 
sea”), or ruler of Calicut, had turned sour when the Muslim commu¬ 
nity lobbied him to reject the Portuguese as predators in disguise, 
whose real objective was “to see and spy, and afterwards to ... con¬ 
quer and plunder.” 15 That the gifts Da Gama had made this Hindu 
prince were also of inferior quality and regarded with contempt 
strained troubled relations still further. As a result, when the fleet 
sailed for home in 1499, a climate of hostility and mistrust had 
developed between the Europeans and their royal host. 

Although Hindus, Nestorian Christians, and other ethnic and 
religious groups also participated in the movement of goods across 
Asian waters, Arabs and to a lesser extent Muslims of Indian extrac¬ 
tion predominated. Furthermore, their control of trade had been 
acquired quite peaceably, through a combination of intermarriage 
with local women (which also helped to spread Islam across the 
region), cooperation with local merchants, and good relations with 
local rulers, who then made little effort to either supervise or protect 
Arab traders and their commerce. Indeed, the policy of native prin¬ 
ces was one of noninterference so long as they shared in the benefits 
of trade, which was organized, in turn, around close family connec¬ 
tions and small partnerships. Numerous historians now argue that 
despite encountering some initial hostility, there is no reason to 
believe that the Portuguese could not have joined this complex mix¬ 
ture of traders, and that their only problem had to do with inferior 
European goods which had no appeal for Asian buyers. This is non¬ 
sense. Quite apart from the mutual animosity between Catholic 
Christianity and Islam that had played itself out for centuries in 
the Mediterranean, the Portuguese recognized very quickly after 

Portugal and the Search for a Sea Route to Asia 


1498—starting with Da Gama—that the only way to break the Arabs’ 
jealously guarded control over the lucrative but closely knit commer¬ 
cial networks of the Indian Ocean was by brute force, not peaceful 
competition. Otherwise, they faced almost total exclusion. 

On the basis of that conviction, two larger fleets sailed from 
Portugal in 1500 and 1502. The first one of thirteen ships, com¬ 
manded by Pedro Alvares Cabral, is most significant for the acciden¬ 
tal discovery of Brazil. While swinging widely to the west in order to 
catch the winds that would carry his outbound fleet around the Cape 
of Good Hope and on to India, Cabral was blown so far off course 
by a storm that he landed on the east coast of South America, 
instead. This accident laid the foundation for Portugal’s subsequent 
claim to a large portion of the New World. Continuing on to Calicut, 
meanwhile, Cabral’s reception by the Zamorin was very tense from 
the outset and soon led to open hostility. An attempt to found a fac¬ 
tory in port ended with violence, in retaliation for which Cabral 
burned several Arab ships then in harbor and bombarded the city 
itself. His prospects improved farther south at the port of Cochin, 
however, where the local ruler was more receptive to Portuguese 
overtures for trade. 

The second expedition of twenty heavily armed vessels sailed in 
1502 under the command of Vasco da Gama, the newly appointed 
admiral of the Indian Sea. Its purpose was explicitly military: to crip¬ 
ple Muslim seaborne trade in the Indian Ocean and to assert Portu¬ 
guese domination in its place. Hence, Da Gama’s first task after 
rounding the Cape of Good Hope was to demonstrate his naval 
strength at various Muslim ports of east Africa, especially the promi¬ 
nent city-state of Kilwa. Only then did he sail for India where, for 
seven months, he harassed Arab shipping along the Malabar Coast, 
bombarded Calicut a second time, defeated a makeshift fleet 
assembled by the Zamorin, and established factories at Cochin and 
Cannanur. Finally departing for home in late February 1503, his 
ships’ holds laden with cargoes of spice and plunder, Da Gama left 
five armed vessels behind at Cannanur to continue harassment of 
Muslim shipping. This small squadron represented the first perma¬ 
nent European naval presence in the Indian Ocean. 16 

The real architects of Portugal’s seaborne empire in Asia were, 
however, its first two viceroys, Francisco de Almeida (1505-1509) 
and Afonso de Albuquerque (1509-1515). As the Crown’s chief 
administrative officers, viceroys typically served a three-year term 
and, because of the time it took to communicate with Lisbon, exer¬ 
cised great independent authority in military, diplomatic, and com¬ 
mercial affairs. Almeida’s contribution was to recognize that without 


command of the sea, fortresses ashore would do little good. The 
Portuguese had neither the manpower nor the material resources to 
defeat the powerful armies of Asian potentates. Yet no matter how 
much force these rulers could dispose on land, none could capture a 
stout Portuguese fortress provisioned and reinforced from the sea. 
Furthermore, the actions of Cabral and Da Gama had demonstrated 
convincingly that artillery aboard warships fighting in squadrons, 
rather than individually, vastly increased the superiority of their 
armament and proved highly effective against people of technological 
and cultural sophistication who inhabited an area of the globe that 
had no naval tradition. Recognizing this significant advantage, 
Almeida began his viceroyalty by assuring Portuguese naval suprem¬ 
acy along the east African coast, where he built fortified factories at 
Soffala (1505) and Mozambique (1507), and formed an alliance with 
the sultan of Malindi. But his greatest accomplishment occurred in 
1509 with the defeat of an improvised Muslim fleet near Diu on the 
Gulf of Cambay in northern India. 

Thereafter, Portuguese conquests and power spread rapidly 
under the gifted leadership of Afonso de Albuquerque. He had the 
genius to recognize the coherence of Asian geography, whose con¬ 
tours led—as if by a fatal necessity—from east Africa and India, 
through the Straits of Malacca, and all the way to the spice islands 
of Indonesia, China, and Japan. He further perceived that possession 
of a few strategic points would give Portugal control over the major 
waterways of Asia and its maritime trade. Thus armed with a prag¬ 
matic plan of action backed by tenacity of purpose, Albuquerque first 
seized “Golden” Goa in 1510 on India’s Malabar Coast, where “duties 
on the fruits and produce of the land,” noted Duarte Barbosa in 
about 1520, “yield the King our Lord yearly twenty thousand ciuza- 
does, in addition to the port dues” levied on ships and cargoes that 
came from throughout the East. 17 The city soon supplanted Calicut 
as the principal port of trade in the region and became the headquar¬ 
ters of Portugal’s growing Asian empire. The victory at Goa was suc¬ 
ceeded by the capture of Malacca in 1511, which commanded the 
straits that divided east and west Asia, and Hormuz in 1515, which 
brought control of the Persian Gulf. 

Possession of these three key strongholds ensured Portuguese 
mastery of the major trade routes in the Indian Ocean. Only the Red 
Sea eluded their control, an effort to seize the port of Aden having 
failed in 1513. Their occupation of Socotra, an island captured by 
Almeida in 1507 near the Horn of Africa, gave the Portuguese partial 
command of commerce in that area nevertheless. In the meantime, 
they made their first contact with China in 1513, established a 

Portugal and the Search for a Sea Route to Asia 


presence on Ceylon in 1515, secured the spice-producing Banda and 
Moluccas Islands of Indonesia between 1516 and 1519, and acquired 
Diu in 1534. And in the 1540s, they were the first Europeans to 
reach Japan. 

Hence, in just forty years since Vasco da Gama first sailed into 
Indian waters, the Portuguese had successfully imposed their power 
across maritime Asia and asserted control over much of its trade. 
They really were lords, in other words, “of the Conquest, Navigation 
and Commerce” of the East Indies, just as King Manuel I had pro¬ 
claimed in 1499. This was a remarkable achievement for a small 
country poor in resources, with a population of no more than 1.5 
million people. It becomes still more impressive when one recalls 
the kingdom’s other heavy commitments in Morocco, west Africa, 
and Brazil, which it began to colonize after 1539. To describe their 
conquests and discoveries from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan, the 
Portuguese adopted the term Estado da India (State of India). The 
outbound voyage along what by now were well-established routes 
was likewise called the carreira da India. In both cases, the meaning 
of “India” was not limited to the subcontinent, but included the 
whole East Indies. 

Commerce, not conquest, remained the principal focus of Por¬ 
tugal’s Asian empire, though it relied heavily on sea power to extend 
and protect its interests. The kingdom simply could not deploy suffi¬ 
cient military strength to engage in major operations against native 
forces on land. An attempt to subdue the whole island of Ceylon in 
the mid-seventeenth century confirmed that fact with disastrous 
results. The twenty-four hundred people or so who sailed for Asia 
each year after 1500 from Lisbon and other ports also severely 
strained the country’s scant human resources at home, while even at 
the height of its imperial power overseas the number of Portuguese 
living in communities scattered across the East Indies was probably 
fourteen thousand at most. These figures do not include the large 
numbers of people who died annually from shipwreck, combat, and 
disease, for which there are no reliable statistics. To be sure, some 
sporadic attempts were made to gain control over the gold mines of 
the east African interior. But these ended usually in failure. At best, 
the Portuguese were able to disrupt the Arab caravan networks 
ashore by occasional harassment, in order to drive up the cost of 
goods that passed overland by way of the Red Sea and Middle East 
to the Muslim and Italian merchants of the Mediterranean. 

For the most part, though, contacts with Africans and Asians 
were limited to maintaining friendly relations for the sake of com¬ 
merce, rather than subjugating or settling large areas that were 



impossible to defend. The Portuguese concentrated, instead, on 
enforcing a monopoly over the direct spice trade to Europe (which 
returned profits on average of 200 to 400 percent) and the interport 
or “country” trade of maritime Asia that was even more lucrative. 
Under this policy, certain ports and certain goods (especially spice) 
were designated as the exclusive right of the Crown, whose control 
was exercised through a royal trading firm called the Casa da India. 
In fact, Portuguese success in Asia was attributable largely to royal 
support and direction from the days of Henry “the Navigator,” which 
had made the kingdom’s imperial ambitions a national enterprise 
from the outset. Certainly, no private firm or individual had the finan¬ 
cial resources or naval force to sustain costly commercial ventures in 
the East Indies, let alone intrude successfully into the well-established 
Muslim trade networks. 

The royal monopoly was anchored, in turn, by a chain of forti¬ 
fied trading posts established from one end of Asia to the other, and 
protected by Portuguese sea power. Each was staffed by a resident 
administrator, called a “factor,” who supervised business transactions, 
collected various surcharges, and governed the local community. In 
time, more than fifty such factories stretched from Mombasa in east 
Africa, to Colombo in Ceylon, Ternate in the Moluccas, and Macau 
(est. 1557) in southern China. Under this monopoly structure, native 
Asian shipping participated in the country trade as before, carrying 
goods from port to port—provided, however, that merchants first 
obtained a Portuguese sailing license, or cartaz , for a fee. Dealers in 
spice and other designated commodities were similarly required to 
pay customs duties at Goa, Hormuz, or Malacca, a profitable policy 
that was ruthlessly enforced against transgressors. Unlicensed ships 
were liable to be sunk or seized, and their crews punished with 
death or mutilation, if caught by Portuguese warships that patrolled 
the major sea lanes. In return for compliance, however, native vessels 
were provided with naval protection against the many pirates who 
infested Asian waters. 

Despite these precautions, the Portuguese never secured total 
control over Asia’s commerce or plugged all the holes in their 
monopoly system. They simply lacked the resources on land and at 
sea to enforce their interests everywhere at once. The geographic 
extent of this enormous region of the globe also worked against 
them. They never succeeded, for example, in closing the Red Sea 
entirely to Muslim shipping nor in halting the clandestine trade in 
spices and other goods along the lesser commercial routes of Asia’s 
backwaters. They were similarly unable to dominate the South China 
Sea, where the belligerent tactics that had worked so well in the 

Portugal and the Search for a Sea Route to Asia 


Indian Ocean failed against the stout ships of the Chinese coast 
guard. Eventually, the Portuguese secured a monopoly of the carry¬ 
ing trade between China and Japan (ca. 1574), but on terms dictated 
by the Ming authorities. As a result of these gaps in the monopoly 
structure, Arab, Indian, Chinese, and Malay merchants remained 
prominent in much of Asia’s commerce, whether or not they carried 
the cartaz- 

Nevertheless, the Portuguese became major exporters of eastern 
goods, transporting perhaps half the spices consumed in Europe dur¬ 
ing the early and middle sixteenth century. (The other half reached 
European markets via the old route through the Red and Mediterra¬ 
nean Seas.) Meanwhile, Portuguese domination over much of mari¬ 
time Asia’s country trade in everything from Persian carpets and 
Indian cottons to aromatic woods, Japanese hides, and Chinese silk 
significantly altered commercial patterns across the region. In time, 
Portuguese became the language of trade throughout the East Indies 
and remained so until the nineteenth century. The most dynamic 
feature of Portugal’s seaborne empire was, however, its dispersion 
from east Africa to the Pacific rim, best illustrated by the time it 
took to sail from west to east. The round trip from Goa to Nagasaki 
in Japan lasted from eighteen months to three years, depending 
upon the rhythm of the monsoon winds. By contrast, the outbound 
voyage from Europe to Goa could be completed in just six to eight 

During much of the sixteenth century, Portugal’s wealth multi¬ 
plied. Its dominant position in Asian commerce also gave the small 
kingdom control over Europe’s most valuable trade and made it the 
envy of its neighbors. At the same time, it profited from its planta¬ 
tions on the Atlantic islands and coastal Brazil. Above all, however, 
the Portuguese achievement displayed the key elements that contrib¬ 
uted to the steady rise of European power around the globe in suc¬ 
ceeding centuries: ambition, technological superiority in guns and 
the use of ships, tactical skill, commercial interest backed by naval 
force, effective planning and organization, and state support. Yet the 
establishment of the Portuguese seaborne empire did not develop 
from a grand strategy. Only part of the planning was carried out in 
Lisbon. Part also was suggested by Muslim and Hindu traders. Per¬ 
haps the greatest part was played by the pragmatic vision of the early 
viceroys, Almeida and Albuquerque, who were quick to recognize 
the integrated nature of Asian trade and geography, and who also 
understood the strategic importance of particular ports that, in the 
right hands, could dominate the region. Building upon the early 
work of successive explorers sent out by Henry “the Navigator,” these 



royal officials were the real founders of Portugal’s “trading post” 
empire in Africa and Asia. 

At the same time, however, Portuguese naval supremacy in the 
Indian Ocean disguised two fatal weaknesses of their imperial struc¬ 
ture. One was the kingdom’s lack of resources that were too thinly 
spread from Brazil to Japan. Perennially short of ships, men, and 
dockyard facilities, except at Goa, the technological gap between 
Portugal and its Asian opponents at sea was also not that large. 
China’s ship-building techniques were certainly equal to those of 
Europe, though this would begin to change in the seventeenth cen¬ 
tury. What the Asians really lacked was the close concentration on a 
specific naval aim. When combined with their superior weaponry 
and utter ruthlessness, that kind of focus assured the Portuguese all 
the advantages. The second fundamental weakness was financial. 
The kingdom’s Asian operations were supposed not only to pay for 
themselves but also to enrich the Crown. This arrangement was 
severely undermined, however, by the enormous expense of protect¬ 
ing a vast seaborne empire and preserving the monopoly of trade— 
what modern business practice refers to as “overhead.” When that 
cost was factored into the imperial equation, it was clear that 
dependence on long-distance commerce from India to Europe, though 
supplemented by Asian taxes and tributes, could not make Portugal’s 
empire finance itself. It was simply too expensive to maintain. 

Consequently, by the late sixteenth century Portuguese power 
in the Indian Ocean had begun to erode. Already faced with a chal¬ 
lenge from Spain, it did not take long for Dutch, English, and French 
rivals to enter into competition by investing in their own imperial 
ventures, most of which focused on Asia. It is significant, how¬ 
ever, that when these would-be competitors embarked on their sepa¬ 
rate quests for commercial empire in the Far East, they followed 
Portugal’s example. Until the mid-eighteenth century, they too 
avoided territorial conquest in favor of establishing trading posts 
(or in the case of the Dutch, seizing those previously held by the 
Portuguese). They likewise obtained concessions from local rulers 
and concentrated their power at sea, since commercial, not territorial 
empire was the goal. They also learned from Portuguese mismanage¬ 
ment the importance of founding their efforts upon a solid financial 
footing. They recognized, as well, the geographic integrity of mari¬ 
time Asia, which their predecessor had exploited with such success. 
But in spite of this competition and the steady erosion of its imperial 
position, Portugal maintained a presence in Asia until the loss of its 
last colonies at Goa (1961), Mozambique (1975), and Macao (1999) 
in the late twentieth century brought that presence to an end. 

Portugal and the Search for a Sea Route to Asia 



1. Cecil Jane, trans. and ed., The Four Voyages of Columbus, 2 vols. 
(London: Hakluyt Society, 1930-1935; reprint, New York: Dover Publica¬ 
tions, 1988), 2:8. 

2. Gomes Eannes de Azurara, The Chronicle of the Discovery and 
Conquest of Guinea, Charles R. Beazley and Edgar Prestage, trans. and eds., 
2 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1896), 2:27. 

3. Ibid. 

4. Ibid. 

5. Peter Russell, Prince Henry “the Navigator,” a Life (New Haven: 
Yale University Press, 2001), 112-113. 

6. G. R. Crone, trans. and ed., The Voyages of Cadamosto (London: 
Hakluyt Society, 1937), 16. 

7. Ibid., 28. 

8. For a more detailed discussion of the three papal decrees, see 
Charles R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825 (London: 
Hitchinson & Co., 1969), 20-24. 

9. Duarte Pacheco Pereira, Esmeraldo de situ orbis, George H. T. 
Kimble, ed. and trans. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1937), 154-155. 

10. Ibid., 155. 

11. Gaspar Correa, The Three Voyages of Vasco da Gama, and His 
Viceroyalty, Henry E. J. Stanley, trans. and ed. (London: Hakluyt Society, 
1869), 75. 

12. Ibid., 51. 

13. Ibid., 99. 

14. Ibid., 155. 

15. Ibid., 157. 

16. Glenn J. Ames, Vasco da Gama, Renaissance Crusader (New York: 
Pearson Longman, 2005), 100. 

17. Mansel L. Dames, trans. and ed., The Book of Duarte Barbosa, 
2 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1918-1921), 1:175. 


Spain and the 
Discovery of a 
New World 

If the Portuguese discovery of the sea route to India and the riches of 
the Far East represents the first milestone in the history of European 
exploration, then the Spanish discovery of the Americas on the west¬ 
ern side of the Atlantic Ocean represents the second. When consid¬ 
ered individually, these two events, both of which occurred at the 
close of the fifteenth century within a mere six years of each other, 
are important in their own right. But when considered together, they 
constitute a major watershed in world history. The reason is simple. 
Prior to the early Portuguese and Spanish voyages of discovery, a chief 
feature of human civilization was the wide dispersion and almost total 
isolation of the different cultures that occupied the globe. As historian 
Charles R. Boxer wrote in 1969, the various societies 

that waxed and waned in the whole of America, and in a great 
part of Africa and the Pacific, were completely unknown to 
those in Europe and Asia. Western Europeans ... had only the 
most tenuous and fragmentary knowledge of the great Asian and 
North African civilizations. These on their side knew little or 
nothing of Europe north of the Pyrenees and of Africa south of 
the Sudan ... and they knew nothing whatever about America. 

It was the Portuguese pioneers and the Castilian conquistadores 
from the western rim of Christendom who linked up, for better 
and for worse, the widely sundered branches of the great human 
family. It was they who first made Humanity conscious, however 
dimly, of its essential unity. 1 

Yet Boxer was not the first to see the importance of these twin 
events. Contemporaries and near contemporaries of the Age of 



Discovery also grasped the significance of the Iberian achievement. 
In the 1516 preface of his book The Decades of the New Worlds or 
West Indies, for example, Spanish author and royal councillor Pietro 
Martire d’Anghiera contrasted the great deeds of ancient times with 
those of his own age. Without intending to offend “the reverence 
due to our predecessors,” he wrote, “whatsoever from the beginning 
of the world hath been done or written to this day, to my judgment 
seemeth but little, if we compare what new lands and countries, new 
seas, what sundry nations and tongues, what golden empires, what 
treasures and pearls they left” to be discovered by men of his own 
times. 2 In the dedication of his General History of the Indies (1552), 
Spanish chronicler Francisco Lopez de Gomara was still more 
explicit when he hailed the discovery of ocean routes to the so-called 
West and East Indies as “the greatest event since the creation of the 
world, apart from the incarnation and death of Him who created it.” 3 
The eighteenth-century political economist Adam Smith similarly 
asserted in his Wealth of Nations (1776) that the “discovery of Amer¬ 
ica and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good 
Hope are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the 
history of mankind.” 4 

But here the convergence ends. For in sharp contrast to the per¬ 
sistence and careful planning behind Portugal’s state-sponsored, 
century-long enterprise of exploration through the south Atlantic 
and around Africa to India, haste, amateurism, random chance, and 
simple good luck lay behind Spain’s early discoveries, most of which 
occurred in just twenty years. Much of that success was also owed, 
meanwhile, not to Spanish talent or foresight. It was owed rather to 
the relative ease with which European scholars, explorers, mer¬ 
chants, soldiers, and seamen moved from service in one kingdom to 
another, taking with them experience and information useful to their 
new royal employers. Under such circumstances, and despite efforts 
to prevent the results of its expeditions from leaking to other states, 
Portugal had most to lose from this dissemination of its secrets and 
personnel, while rival Spain had the most to gain. Indeed, that coun¬ 
try’s rapid and dramatic, if belated, entry into maritime exploration 
at the close of the fifteenth century depended upon talented foreign¬ 
ers like the Genoese Columbus and the Portuguese Magellan, both 
of whom had honed their seafaring skills and geographic knowledge 
while in service to the Crown of Portugal. 

The voyages undertaken by the two kingdoms also produced 
different results, though their motives were more or less the same: 
religion and profit. For what Portuguese captains like Vasco da Gama, 
Pedro Alvarez Cabral, and Afonso de Albuquerque encountered on 

Spain and the Discovery of a New World 


their arrival in Asian waters was not a wholly unknown world 
peopled by primitive savages. They found, instead, what they had 
expected to find—a mosaic of sophisticated cultures and rich princi¬ 
palities, many of them already familiar to western Europeans from 
the accounts of Marco Polo and other medieval travelers. These 
countries, with their teeming populations, were long accustomed, 
moreover, to dealing with Arab, Persian, and Hindu merchants over 
well-established commercial routes that linked one end of Asia to the 
other by land and sea. From the outset, therefore, the Portuguese 
newcomers had to rely on diplomacy, backed by naval power and 
occasional brute force, if they were to overcome the obstacles of jeal¬ 
ousy, hostility, and resistance in their pursuit of trade and seaborne 
empire in a highly integrated region of the globe. 

In sharp contrast, Spanish explorers, or those employed by 
Spain, stumbled upon a whole new world on the opposite side of the 
Atlantic Ocean, whose very existence no one in the old world of 
Europe had even imagined. The cultures they first encountered in 
the Americas were also entirely different from the great cosmopolitan 
societies of Asia. The Caribbean Islands were lightly inhabited by 
simple, peace-loving people, inclined to timidity, who lived in mod¬ 
est villages close to a state of nature and were easily subdued. How 
different were the highly developed, better organized, and far more 
warlike civilizations of Mexico and Peru, which the Spaniards later 
met on the mainland to their great surprise. Yet in spite of their level 
of sophistication, these were also brittle societies, separate from each 
other, internally riven, burdened with conquered subjects hostile to 
their rule, and susceptible to European diseases from which they had 
no immunity. Thus already handicapped, the Aztec and Inca empires 
were defeated quickly by Spanish determination, ruthlessness, supe¬ 
rior weaponry, and blind luck. If, then, the land-based empire that 
Spain built in the New World was founded upon conquest and colo¬ 
nization, unlike Portugal’s trading post empire in Africa and Asia, it 
is because Spanish attention overseas was directed toward a more 
sparsely populated region where the various cultures were largely 
isolated from one another, less resilient, and less able, therefore, to 
resist European arms. 

For a variety of reasons, however, Spain’s entry into the field of 
maritime exploration was delayed, even though some Spanish sea¬ 
farers had ventured into south Atlantic waters during the early fif¬ 
teenth century in competition with the Portuguese. To begin with, 
the kingdom was not yet united under a strong centralized mon¬ 
archy. Because its process of territorial unification and national con¬ 
solidation lagged well behind that of Portugal, “Spain” was still little 


more than a geographic expression at the time of Columbus’s 
inaugural voyage of 1492. It consisted, instead, of two autonomous 
realms, loosely connected by a royal marriage. One was Castile in 
central Iberia; the other was Aragon, which faced the western 

With a population of more than 8 million people, Castile was 
the largest and wealthiest of the three major Christian kingdoms that 
occupied the peninsula. But it was frequently convulsed by civil war 
between the powerful Castilian nobility and the weak monarchy. Its 
Reconquista to expel the Moors from Spanish soil, begun in the elev¬ 
enth century, was also ongoing. By 1400, however, only the Muslim 
emirate of Granada remained as a virtual client kingdom of Castile, 
until it, too, was defeated and absorbed in 1492 after a ten-year 
struggle. Aragon, on the other hand, was approximately the same 
size as Portugal and consisted of three areas: Catalonia, the commer¬ 
cial heart of the kingdom; Aragon itself; and Valencia, a region noted 
for its agriculture. Additional territories had also been acquired in 
the late Middle Ages with the seizure of Sardinia, Sicily, southern 
Italy, and the Balearic Islands in the western Mediterranean. But 
expansion had both weakened the Aragonese Crown and exposed it 
to repeated revolts by the nobility, just like its Castilian counterpart. 

This was the situation in October 1469 when Isabella, sister of 
the king of Castile, married Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragon. 
The royal union immediately sparked a decade-long dispute over the 
Castilian succession led by jealous nobles. They feared that the mar¬ 
riage would strengthen the monarchy against them. Seeing an oppor¬ 
tunity to increase his power and territory, Afonso V of Portugal also 
entered the quarrel. In retaliation, Isabella and Ferdinand licensed 
privateers and encouraged illicit trafficking along the Guinea coast 
in violation of Portugal’s monopoly. Ultimately, though, the opposi¬ 
tion to Isabella’s succession failed. In 1474, she ascended the throne 
of her late brother, despite the outbreak of armed resistance by the 
nobility and open war with the Portuguese. Five years later, Ferdi¬ 
nand inherited the Aragonese crown in his turn. These events, com¬ 
bined with their lack of military success, at last forced the dissident 
Castilian nobles to acknowledge Isabella as their rightful queen in 
1479. With the union of the two crowns, a united Spain now became 
a possibility under the victorious and powerful monarchs. 

Yet Ferdinand and Isabella made no attempt at this time to cre¬ 
ate a single, monolithic state by combining their two realms into one 
monarchy. That would not occur until the accession of their grand¬ 
son Charles, the future Holy Roman Emperor, to the Castilian throne 
in 1504 and the Aragonese throne in 1516. Until then, Aragon 

Spain and the Discovery of a New World 


remained an autonomous federation of territories, administered by 
viceroys appointed by the king, in which established traditions of 
government by consent were preserved through a representative 
body called the Cortes. Castile similarly remained a separate entity, 
though in this case the two monarchs worked together to ensure 
their superiority over all possible rivals to royal authority. As a result 
of that joint effort, Castile was freed from internal division that had 
formerly preoccupied its attention and drained its resources, and 
order was restored to a countryside long troubled by civil conflict. 
Peace also gave the monarchs renewed energy and strength to pursue 
expansionist policies. Their conquest of Muslim Granada in 1492, 
which ended Spain’s Reconquista after a decade-long campaign, was 
one expression of that newly acquired confidence. Isabella’s decision 
later the same year to support Columbus’s Enterprise of the Indies 
was another. 

Up to this point, however, Spanish interests overseas had con¬ 
centrated on the western Mediterranean and North Africa. Since 
1315, in fact, Castilian monarchs had claimed, as part of their 
ongoing struggle against the Muslims of Iberia, “that acquisition of 
the kingdoms of Africa belong to us and our royal right.” They then 
extended that prerogative over time to include the tierras de 
allende —“the lands of beyond”—thus initiating a long competition 
with Portugal. No less than its smaller neighbor, Castile required 
more arable land to feed its growing population. It also desired the 
benefits of trade and direct access to the sources of gold in sub- 
Saharan Africa. To achieve those ends, some attempts were made 
during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries to acquire 
islands in the south Atlantic. Castile’s success in asserting its hold on 
the Canaries in 1436 over rival Portugal is just one example. Soon 
enough, however, domestic upheavals had interrupted any further 
efforts at maritime expansion. After 1479, Spanish activity in that 
direction was also blunted by the Treaty of A1 c a (,; o v as - To 1 e d o, which 
ended the war with Portugal over Isabella’s succession. Notwith¬ 
standing their defeat in that struggle, the Portuguese gained some of 
their principal war aims from the agreement. Chief among these was 
Castile’s recognition of their monopoly of exploration, trade, and 
conquest down the west coast of Africa, which effectively limited 
any future navigation by Spanish seafarers to the latitudes of the 

It was no coincidence, therefore, that when Ferdinand and 
Isabella decided once again to sponsor voyages of exploration during 
the final decade of the fifteenth century, they looked westward across 
the Atlantic. They had no other option. Furthermore, if in retrospect 



the greatest achievement of their joint reign was the discovery and 
subsequent colonization of the Americas, it was purely accidental. 
For they like the Portuguese, were searching initially for a sea route 
to Asia. Nor at first did their new project meet with widespread 
enthusiasm from well-placed contemporaries. On the contrary, the 
Enterprise of the Indies was denounced by many of the monarchs’ 
closest advisers as a waste of effort and resources. Indeed, if not for 
the persistence of Christopher Columbus and a few key persons at 
Isabella’s court, credit for having discovered a vast New World across 
the wide “Ocean Sea” might have gone to a kingdom other than 
Spain. That kingdom might even have been Portugal, had its mon¬ 
arch endorsed Columbus’s plan (as he famously expressed it) of sail¬ 
ing west to reach the East. 

Columbus and His Enterprise: The Accidental 
Discovery of a New World 

Despite his renown, little is known of the explorer beyond 
shreds of evidence and much conjecture, save that he was born into 
a prosperous Genoese merchant family in 1451 and had gained his 
first maritime experience aboard trading vessels to Spain, Portugal, 
England, and perhaps even Iceland. Starting in 1478 or 1479, he 
spent several years at Lisbon, where he married the daughter of 
Bartolomeu Perestrelo, a well-connected Portuguese captain who had 
led the colonization of the Madeiras by order of Prince Henry “the 
Navigator.” Already familiar with the sea lanes of the western 
Mediterranean and north Atlantic from youthful experience, 
Columbus now expanded his nautical education by making several 
voyages to the islands of the south Atlantic under the Portuguese 
flag. His knowledge of sugar production in the Azores and the 
Madeiras revealed in his later letters further suggests that he was 
involved for a time in the triangular trade in gold, slaves, and sugar 
from Africa and the Atlantic islands to Portugal. According to his 
son and first biographer, Ferdinand, Columbus informed himself, as 
well, “of the other voyages and navigations that the Portuguese were 
making to [Sao Jorge da] Mina and down the coast of Guinea, and 
greatly enjoyed speaking with the men who sailed in those regions.” 

It was also during this period, continued Ferdinand, that “one 
thing leading to another and starting a train of thought,” Columbus 
began to speculate “that if the Portuguese could sail so far south, 
it should be possible to sail as far westward, and that it was logical 
to expect to find land in that direction.” 6 He had reached that 

Spain and the Discovery of a New World 


conclusion after careful study of available works on geography and 
astronomy in particular the Cosmographia of the ancient Greek sci¬ 
entist Ptolemy (first translated into Latin in 1406) and the Imago 
Mundi (or Image of the World, published in 1410) of French philoso¬ 
pher Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly. He had also scrutinized the works of 
medieval travelers like Marco Polo, and whatever papers and sea 
charts were available to him in Portugal. Many of the books con¬ 
sulted by the explorer still exist in European archives, incidentally, 
with marginal notations in his own hand. 

Drawing upon these sources, Columbus convinced himself that 
the distance between Europe and Asia was far less than it actually is. 
Beginning with Ptolemy’s estimate that the circumference of the 
world was 18,000 miles (6,000 miles too short) and Polo’s later esti¬ 
mate that the Asian continent extended 1,500 miles farther east than 
it does, Columbus reckoned the distance from the Canaries to the 
outer islands of “Cipangu” (i.e., Japan) to be just 2,500 nautical 
miles. 7 In reality, it is five times greater; yet, Columbus could back 
his calculations with reference to three additional authorities. One 
was Pierre d’Ailly who, having estimated that water covered only a 
quarter of the earth, had asserted that “the sea is navigable in a few 
days if the wind is favorable.” 8 Another, even more seductive source, 
because of its relation to scripture, was a passage in the book of 
Esdras (6:42)—an apocryphal text still included in contemporary 
Bibles—which stated that water covered a mere seventh part of the 
globe. Both authorities seemed to be confirmed, finally, by the work 
of Paolo Toscanelli (1397-1482), a Florentine geographer and math¬ 
ematician who had also proposed reaching the Far East via the At¬ 
lantic Ocean in a 1474 letter to the king of Portugal. In support of 
that project, he too had grossly underestimated the distance between 
Europe and Asia, were one to sail westward to Japan and thence to 

Columbus likely knew of Toscanelli’s letter, and some historians 
believe that they corresponded with each other. Whatever the case, 
Columbus revised the Florentine’s calculations downward in a way 
that shortened the distance from the Canaries to Japan still further. 
This revision, combined with his reading of the traditional sources 
he also consulted, placed the Japanese archipelago in the approxi¬ 
mate location of the modern-day Virgin Islands. The would-be 
explorer paid close heed, as well, to the anecdotal evidence he heard 
from mariners of the day. He was intrigued, for example, by reports 
of several Portuguese captains about carved bits of driftwood found 
at sea which (they had concluded) were carried from an island or 
islands lying farther to the west by stiff winds and currents. Similar 


accounts from the Azores alleged that when strong westerly or north¬ 
westerly winds blew, the sea washed whole pine trees ashore, though 
pines were not native to the islands. Human corpses bearing features 
entirely different from those of Europeans were also said to have 
come aground in the same manner. Reflecting on the various sources 
of his information, both geographic and anecdotal, Columbus 
became convinced (wrote his son Ferdinand) that “to the west of the 
Canary and Cape Verde Islands lay lands which could be reached 
and discovered”—in a word, Asia. 9 He further believed that the voy¬ 
age might be accomplished easily in a matter of days or weeks, as 
the geographic distance was relatively small. That thinking inspired 
his famous Enterprise of the Indies. 

It was one thing, however, to conceive of such a scheme. It was 
quite another to find a monarch who would back it with men, 
money, and ships. For without state support, the project was impos¬ 
sible. But many contemporaries doubted the feasibility of the plan, 
in any case. They were skeptical about Columbus’s geography and 
the heavy financial costs involved. Nor was it helpful that Columbus 
also presented potential royal sponsors with a long list of demands 
for personal reward should his enterprise succeed. After all, wrote 
Ferdinand in defense of his father’s unvarnished self-interest, “being 
a man of noble and lofty ambitions, he would not covenant save on 
such terms as would bring him great honor and advantage, in order 
that he might leave a title and estate befitting the grandeur of his 
works and merits.” 10 

For a variety of reasons, therefore, Columbus encountered 
much difficulty in finding a monarch who would underwrite his ven¬ 
ture. Twice he was rebuffed by the Portuguese royal authorities, first 
in 1484 after careful examination of the project, and second in 1488 
after Bartolomeu Dias’s voyage around the Cape of Good Hope had 
opened a viable sea route to India. Cost was also a major concern. 
Consequently, wrote Ferdinand of his father’s failure, though King 
John II had “listened attentively ... , he appeared cool toward 
the project, because the discovery and conquest of ... Guinea had 
[already] put the prince to great expense and trouble without the 
least return.” 11 Hence, he was not inclined to spend additional 
money on exploring Atlantic waters to the west, where Portuguese 
voyages to date had found nothing but a few scattered islands. 

Undaunted, if disappointed, by these initial rebuffs, Columbus 
turned next to the Spanish monarchs, who, he believed, might be 
better disposed to endorse his enterprise. Should they too reject it, 
however, he was prepared to appeal to the kings of England and 
France. Though received at the Spanish court in 1486 and given a 

Spain and the Discovery of a New World 


sympathetic hearing, Columbus’s enthusiasm for the venture was 
only partially shared by Isabella and Ferdinand, who gave no com¬ 
mitment of support. Instead, they had the Genoese seaman lay his 
proposal before a commission of geographers, scholars, experienced 
pilots, and theologians especially appointed to scrutinize the plan. 
The results of their deliberations were not reported to the Crown 
until four years later. Concluding that a westward route to Asia 
rested upon many dubious geographic assumptions, the commis¬ 
sioners dismissed the scheme as impractical and advised the two 
monarchs to reject it. 

From that third rebuff has evolved an enduring popular myth 
that the council’s decision resulted from medieval resistance to the 
winds of change stirred by the “modern” thinking of the Renaissance. 
The origin of that myth is Washington Irving’s 1828 biography of 
Columbus, the first major modern account of the explorer’s life in 
English, or in any other language, for that matter. Writing of the 
commission’s deliberations, which he linked implicitly with the In¬ 
quisition also introduced into Spain by the Catholic monarchs at this 
time to root out “any opinion that savored of heresy [and] make its 
owner obvious to odium and persecution,” Irving contrasted the 
dullness and backward thinking of the commissioners with the 
vision and natural eloquence of Columbus in “pleading the cause of 
the new world.” Impeded in the progress of their scientific knowl¬ 
edge by what Irving called “monastic bigotry,” these men assailed the 
Enterprise of the Indies with biblical citations, evangelical authority, 
and ignorance disguised as erudition, instead of with sound geo¬ 
graphic objections. Even to Columbus’s simplest proposition—the 
spherical shape of the earth—“were opposed figurative texts of scrip¬ 
ture,” not scientific fact. Thus confronted by a preponderance “of 
inert bigotry and learned pride in this erudite body, which refused to 
yield to the demonstrations of an obscure foreigner,” Irving asked 
rhetorically, “can we wonder at the difficulties and delays he experi¬ 
enced at courts, where such vague and crude notions [of the world] 
were entertained by learned [men]?” 12 

But the “learned men” whom Irving so vilified were not just the 
best minds of Spain. They, too, had immersed themselves in the same 
texts and geographic sources Columbus had consulted, albeit with 
different results. They were well aware, moreover, of the spherical 
nature of the globe. That geographic fact, established centuries 
before by Greek and Roman authority, was equally clear to medieval 
scholars and to anyone else who lived by, or drew his livelihood 
from, the sea. To such people, whether educated or not, the curva¬ 
ture of the earth at the horizon was obvious. The commission’s 



rejection of Columbus’s enterprise was, therefore, an informed deci¬ 
sion based upon the best scientific, geographic, and practical knowl¬ 
edge of the day, instead of narrow-minded prejudice or superstition. 
Also damaging to the explorer’s position (as his son later admitted) 
was that Columbus had withheld important details of his proposal 
from the commissioners for fear that others would steal his idea and 
triumph in his place. It was doubtful, in any case, that Isabella and 
Ferdinand could have supported the venture at this time. They were 
too preoccupied with the conquest of Granada, now in its final 
stages, and could ill afford to divert attention or scarce resources to 
a secondary project of dubious result. 

Nevertheless, Columbus persisted, even seeking an audience 
with Isabella at her camp before the walls of the besieged Muslim 
stronghold. It was there, “in the camp-city of the Holy Faith and in 
the holy faith,” wrote royal historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo 
in 1547, that the discovery of the Americas “had its beginnings.” 13 
Though the queen was prevailed upon to reconsider the proposal for 
an enterprise to the Indies, it was still opposed by her council. No 
doubt much of that resistance was due, wrote Ferdinand Columbus, 
to the many demands that his father now presented to Isabella 
should he succeed, but which “she was loath to grant.” 14 Heading 
his list were the titles of admiral of the Ocean Sea and viceroy of the 
Indies, with the prerogatives and preeminences both offices com¬ 
manded. But such appointments were usually only entrusted to prin¬ 
ces of the blood or great aristocrats. Columbus also wanted for 
himself and his heirs noble status, jurisdiction over all official 
appointments and matters of trade in the lands he discovered, and 
10 percent of all proceeds that these territories might produce. Can 
there be any surprise that, having just brought the Castilian nobility 
to obedience in a bitter civil war over Isabella’s succession, the queen 
and her husband balked at creating what amounted to a great feudal 
power in the Indies almost independent of the Crown, if Columbus 
fulfilled his promises? 

And yet he prevailed. With the formal surrender of Granada on 
2 January 1492, the Catholic monarchs were free at last to direct 
their attention to other matters. One was the expulsion of the Jews 
from Spanish soil, which took effect on 1 July the same year. A sec¬ 
ond was Columbus’s much-debated Enterprise of the Indies. Once 
more the project was submitted to a learned commission for review, 
but although this time the recommendation was favorable, the royal 
council still objected because of Columbus’s exorbitant demands. At 
length, however, Isabella and Ferdinand were induced by several 
well-placed courtiers to back a modest expedition. Foremost among 

Spain and the Discovery of a New World 


them was Luis de Santangal, the influential keeper of the privy 
purse, who argued that the scheme offered the prospect of consider¬ 
able gain for the Crown and the Christian faith at a relatively low 
cost. Hence, in late April, seven royal capitulations were issued in 
preparation for the voyage, the most important of which granted 
everything Columbus had wanted. Santangal also arranged for the 
necessary funding, only part of which was contributed by the Crown. 
The rest came from a variety of private and public sources, including 
the port of Palos that provided two of Columbus’s three ships. 

When the preparations were at last completed, the Santa Maria, 
Pinta, and Nina sailed from Palos early on 2 August 1492 with 
Columbus and ninety men aboard. Their commission was “to dis¬ 
cover and acquire certain islands and the mainland in the Ocean 
Sea,” for which purpose the newly created admiral carried letters of 
introduction from the Spanish monarchs to Asian rulers, in particu¬ 
lar the “Grand Khan,” or emperor of China. 15 Also sailing with 
Columbus aboard his flagship Santa Maria was a Jewish convert to 
Christianity, fluent in Arabic, to serve as translator. Hence, just like 
their Portuguese counterparts, Columbus and his royal sponsors 
anticipated that he would find on the far side of the Atlantic exactly 
what they expected him to find—Asia and its riches. 

At first, the small fleet sailed south toward the Canary Islands, 
where it stayed for a month to take on additional stores and to make 
repairs or adjustments to all three vessels. Resuming the voyage on 6 
September, Columbus turned west with the trade winds into the 
unknown sea. As time passed without catching the least glimpse of 
land, the crewmen began to lose confidence in their commander, as 
they grew doubtful about ever seeing Spain again. In fact, reported 
the expedition’s logbook, at one point late in the voyage Columbus 
faced down a near mutiny by his anxious men, encouraging them as 
best he could, “holding out high hopes of the gains they would 
make,” and adding that it was useless to complain “because he had 
reached the [vicinity of] the Indies and must sail on until with the 
help of Our Lord he discovered land.” 16 

Finally, on 12 October, after thirty-three days of sailing across 
open water (and ten days later than he had calculated), the admiral 
made his first landfall probably in the Bahamas, which he mistook as 
the outer islands of Japan. Going ashore on an island the native 
Taino inhabitants called Guanahani, but which the explorer rechris¬ 
tened San Salvador, Columbus raised the Spanish royal banner and 
claimed the land in the name of Isabella and Ferdinand. He also made 
his first contact with the indigenous people, whom he described in his 
logbook as handsome, well-proportioned, dark-skinned, and peaceful. 


“They should be good servants,” he added, “and very intelligent, for 
I have observed that they soon repeat anything that is said to them, 
and I believe that they would easily be made Christian, for they 
appeared to me to have no religion.” 7 Though puzzled that none of 
the natives he encountered anywhere during the voyage resembled 
the medieval descriptions of the Chinese or Japanese, he nevertheless 
dubbed them “Indians” in the firm belief that he had reached the 
East Indies as anticipated. 

For almost three months, Columbus explored the Caribbean in 
search of gold and spices, but he found none. Instead, he discovered 
the large island of Cuba, south of San Salvador, which was of partic¬ 
ular interest. For if (he wrote), “I am to believe the indications of all 
these Indians and those I have on board—I do not know their 
language—this is the island of Cipangu [Japan] of which such 
marvelous tales are told, and which on the globes I have seen and 
the painted map of the world appears to lie in this region.” 18 From 
Cuba, Columbus sailed east to another large island of which he also 
had learned and which he named Hispaniola (modern Haiti) in 
honor of Spain. Here, however, misfortune struck. On Christmas 
Eve, the Santa Maria foundered just off shore while Columbus slept 
in his cabin. With the flagship no longer seaworthy, its crew and 
cargo had to be transferred to land or to the two remaining vessels. 
Unable, however, to fit everyone aboard the Nina and Pinta when he 
sailed for home on 16 January 1493, Columbus left forty men behind 
at a small fort constructed from the timbers of the wrecked Santa 
Maria. Called Fa Navidad in commemoration, wrote Ferdinand, “of 
the day on which the admiral had escaped the perils of the sea and 
reached land to make the beginnings of their settlement,” 19 it was 
the first European colony established in the New World. 

Columbus recrossed the Atlantic in the latitude of the Azores, 
battered by storms and high winds most of the way. One dark night 
during the height of the bad weather, his two ships became separated 
and only reunited back in Spain. Conditions were so severe, in fact, 
that when the tiny Nina reached the island of Santa Maria, alone and 
with the admiral aboard, the Portuguese residents expressed their 
astonishment at his escape from a tempest that had been blowing 
constantly for fifteen days. From the Azores, Columbus was driven 
by yet another storm to Fisbon. There he was received warmly by 
King John II who, a short time before, had rejected his Enterprise of 
the Indies, but who now listened with rapt attention to the explorer’s 
detailed account of his discoveries. The Portuguese monarch then 
offered to be of service to Isabella and Ferdinand, but (wrote 
Ferdinand Columbus) he also remarked “that it seemed to him by 

Spain and the Discovery of a New World 


the treaty [of A1 c a g o v as - To 1 e cl o ] that he had with the Sovereigns, the 
discovered lands belonged [properly] to him.” 20 This claim led to 
one of the most significant international agreements of the late fif¬ 
teenth century. 

In the meantime, Columbus returned to Spain, arriving at the 
port of Palos on 13 March 1493. A month later, he was received at 
court to report on the success of his voyage. In the firm belief that 
he had discovered a western route to Asia, Columbus concluded that 
Cuba (which he had first mistaken for Cipangu and then for main¬ 
land Cathay because of its enormous size) and neighboring Hispa¬ 
niola were outer islands belonging to China and Japan. Both places, 
he asserted, “are richer than I yet know or can say and I have taken 
possession of them in their Majesties’ name and hold them all on 
their behalf and as completely at their disposal as the Kingdom of 
Castile.” 21 To be sure, he had not found any of the silks, gemstones, 
spices, or other commodities so highly valued by Europeans and 
for which the Far East was famous. Nevertheless, he assured the 
Catholic monarchs that subsequent voyages would open up a rich 
and abundant trade in “as much gold as they require, ... all the 
spices and cotton they want, ... [and] as much aloes as they ask and 
as many slaves, who will be taken from the idolaters.” 22 A degree of 
self-interest probably also lay behind the explorer’s earnest conten¬ 
tion that he had reached Asia as promised. For the list of demands 
he had presented to Isabella prior to his voyage depended upon his 
success. At all events, delighted by the results of his enterprise and 
the promise of great wealth to come, the queen and her consort 
accepted Columbus’s word that he had reached Asia. Hence, in May 
they issued a new capitulation that confirmed the personal rewards 
he had been granted the previous year. 

Concerned, in the meantime, to secure formal recognition of 
the newly discovered islands as Spanish possessions, and thus clear 
the way not only for their commercial exploitation but also for 
further territorial acquisition to the west, the Catholic monarchs 
opened negotiations with the pope in Rome and the Crown of 
Portugal to forestall any disputes. For if Columbus had reached the 
eastern outskirts of Asia, in fact, King John II had a legitimate claim 
to anything discovered there on the basis of the three papal bulls 
issued in the mid-1450s, which had granted a Portuguese monopoly 
in the region, and the subsequent Treaty of Alcagovas-Toledo con¬ 
cluded with Spain in 1479. Hence, Isabella and Ferdinand lobbied 
for support from Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), a Spaniard by 
blood who was also obligated to the two sovereigns. In matters of 
religion that were so closely united to the motives for exploration, 



only he could grant the exclusive right to spread the faith in a par¬ 
ticular “heathen” area to one Christian community of Europe over 
another. 23 In two edicts issued in 1493, Alexander made a temporary 
ruling, based on a division of the world between Spain and Portugal 
along an imaginary line from north to south that lay 100 leagues 
(300 400 miles) west of the Azores and Cape Verde islands. All 
lands to the east of that line could be claimed by Portugal; all lands 
discovered to the west were reserved for Spain, “whether they be in 
regions occidental or meridional and oriental and of India.” 24 

Although the decision established the Spanish Crown’s basic 
legal claim to the islands discovered by Columbus in the Caribbean, 
it was just a preliminary to further negotiations with the Portuguese. 
Because of the popes explicit reference to India, John II was espe¬ 
cially concerned to restrict Spanish maritime activity by pushing it 
farther west where (he believed) it would be harmless, in order to 
reserve for Portugal as much of the south Atlantic as possible. 
Consequently, the king dropped his claim to the newly discovered 
islands, asking only that the pope’s original demarcation line be 
moved 270 leagues (810 miles) farther west to safeguard Portugal’s 
African interests. The Spanish monarchs agreed and, with both sides 
believing they had the better of the bargain, the Treaty of Tordesillas 
was duly signed in 1494. In reality, however, the agreement was a 
diplomatic coup for the Portuguese that confirmed their claim to the 
only known route to India, most of the south Atlantic, and, eventu¬ 
ally, Brazil that bulged east of the line. One question remained 
unanswered, however. If the Tordesillas line extended completely 
around the earth, where did the different spheres of Spanish and 
Portuguese influence divide in Asia? That issue, which ultimately 
decided who possessed the highly prized but hotly contested spice 
islands of Indonesia, would not be resolved in favor of Portugal until 
1529—seven years after the first circumnavigation of the globe was 

Initial Exploration of the New World: 

The Search for China Continues 

As for Columbus, he made three additional voyages to the West 
Indies, still convinced that he had discovered a sea route to Asia’s 
eastern rim. On the first of these expeditions in 1493, he led a fleet 
of seventeen ships with fifteen hundred sailors, churchmen, adven¬ 
turers, and colonists aboard. Such was the level of interest and 

Spain and the Discovery of a New World 


enthusiasm that his discoveries the year before had excited in Spain. 
Sailing first to the makeshift settlement at La Navidad, Columbus 
found the fort a charred ruin and the men all dead or missing. Their 
fate is still unknown, but they were likely killed after quarreling with 
their native hosts or fell as casualties of intertribal warfare. 
Undaunted by the loss, Columbus put his colonists ashore at a new 
site several miles farther along the coast at a place he named La 
Isabella in honor of the queen of Castile. The colony never pros¬ 
pered. The ill-chosen site was both unprotected and unhealthy, while 
the unruly settlers were more than Columbus could control. By 
choice and temperament an explorer, he proved to be a poor gover¬ 
nor and worse administrator, ill suited for his lofty responsibilities. 

Having established the foundations of a new colony, the admiral 
continued his explorations in the Caribbean, discovering the islands 
of Dominica, Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. He then 
returned to Spain in early 1496 to report on his progress and 
respond to complaints by malcontents from La Isabella. During 
Columbus’s absence, his brother and second in command, Bartolo¬ 
meu, moved the struggling colony to a better site on Hispaniola’s 
south coast. There, in 1496-1497, the settlers began construction of 
a new town, Santo Domingo, which was to serve as the capital of the 
Spanish West Indies for the next half century. 

Columbus’s third voyage of 1498-1500 was remarkable for 
three reasons. First was his discovery of Trinidad, which meant he 
had explored and claimed for Spain most of the islands belonging to 
the Greater and Lesser Antilles. Second, Columbus no longer 
believed that the earth’s shape was spherical as, he wrote, “all author¬ 
ities and the recorded experiments of Ptolemy and the rest ... had 
constantly drawn and confirmed ... , which they held to be true.” 25 
Instead, the explorer had reached the curious conclusion on the 
basis of irregularities he had seen over successive voyages that the 
world was pear-shaped, “or like a round ball, on part of which is 
something like a woman’s nipple.” 26 The third feature of the voyage 
was Columbus’s arrest and transportation back to Spain in irons after 
a revolt by the colonists on Hispaniola. This fiasco provided the 
Spanish monarchs with the legal grounds they needed to strip the 
explorer of the titles and prerogatives granted to him in 1492. Long 
concerned that they had awarded Columbus too much power in the 
Indies, Isabella and Ferdinand swiftly replaced him as governor with 
a royal appointee. 

Though released and permitted to make a fourth and final voy¬ 
age, during which he reached the mainland of Central America for 
the first time, Columbus never regained the monarchs’ lost favor. 


Following his death in 1506, his family sought through legal means 
the restoration of the original hereditary rights and titles he had been 
granted by the Crown. The case was not resolved until 1536, how¬ 
ever, when the newly formed Council of the Indies ruled that the 
late explorer’s heirs were to renounce all their claims in exchange for 
an annual pension of ten thousand ducats and title to the Duchy of 
Veragua in Panama. 

In a classic biography published in 1942, author Samuel Eliot 
Morison wrote of Christopher Columbus that he 

belonged to an age that was past, yet he became the sign and 
symbol of [a] new age of hope, glory and accomplishment.... In 
his faith, his deductive methods of reasoning, his unquestioning 
acceptance of the current ethics, Columbus was a man of the 
Middle Ages, and in the best sense. In his readiness to translate 
thought into action, in lively curiosity and accurate observation 
of natural phenomena, in his joyous sense of adventure and 
desire to win wealth and recognition, he was a modern man . 27 

That conception of modernity is problematic, however, and no more 
applies to Christopher Columbus than it does to Prince Henry “the 
Navigator,” whom generations of historians have also tried to place 
in advance of his times. The simple truth is that Columbus was a 
thoroughly medieval man, whose fundamental motives, beliefs, and 
perspectives on the world were fashioned by the late medieval cul¬ 
ture in which he lived. Even his pursuit of fame and fortune were 
molded by an age in which chivalric notions of great deeds contin¬ 
ued to play a major role, and self-advancement focused on achieving 
noble status in the traditional social hierarchy of the day that no one 

In other words, Columbus was no “Renaissance man” of vision; 
he was no forerunner of a new, more rational world or worldview 
who successfully broke with medieval myth and superstition, or 
whose voyages shattered the isolation and parochial outlook of con¬ 
temporary Europeans. If that were the case, then medieval travelers 
such as Marco Polo and Portuguese explorers such as Vasco da Gama 
equally merit this distinction, because they possessed many of the 
same attributes. Instead, Columbus’s vision was, like theirs, thor¬ 
oughly traditional in character. In later years he even saw himself in 
religious terms as divinely ordained to help Christendom free the 
Holy Land from Muslim control and thought that his own trans- 
Atlantic voyages of exploration were a means to that sacred end. 

This self-image is clear from the Libro de las profecias (Book of 
Prophesies ) he composed in 1502-1503 after returning in chains 

Spain and the Discovery of a New World 


from his third expedition. This compilation of biblical passages was 
intended to inspire Ferdinand and Isabella to finance a fourth voyage 
under his command, in fulfillment of millennial prophecies of 
becoming monarchs of a New Jerusalem. Columbus adhered to the 
late medieval belief that the end of the world and the second coming 
of Jesus Christ were imminent (just 150 years away he wrote). He 
was also convinced that God had made him the messenger of the 
new heaven and earth as foretold in the book of Revelation. The 
“Lord opened ... my understanding (I could sense his hand upon 
me), so that it became clear that it was feasible to navigate from 
[Spain] to the Indies; and he unlocked within me the determination 
to execute the idea ... to perform the clearest miracle in this 
[matter] of the voyage.” 28 From Columbus’s own perspective, there¬ 
fore, his achievement was significant, even epochal, not because he 
ushered in a more modern rational age, but because his achievement 
heralded the near completion of the long history of the creation and 
redemption that would culminate in the conversion of all mankind 
to Christianity. 

At the same time, when the explorer died in 1506, he was still 
convinced that his discoveries across the Atlantic belonged to Asia 
and were not part of a huge unknown continent lying between 
Europe and the Far East. With every successive voyage, however, 
and in the face of mounting evidence, it gradually became clear to 
many contemporaries that Columbus was mistaken and that he had 
stumbled, in fact, upon a whole new world. For some time, to be 
sure, the Spaniards continued to refer to their new islands in the 
Caribbean as the “Indies,” which they identified with the East Indies, 
the source of spices, silks, and other valuable commodities. Even 
when these islands were recognized as outposts of a new landmass, 
their importance was initially overlooked. Only later did the full sig¬ 
nificance of Columbus’s discoveries become clear when, as the news 
spread rapidly throughout Europe, other explorers and adventures 
from Spain, England, Portugal, and France sailed in his wake, 
inspired by his example. 

In the meantime, the goal was still to find an easy westward 
passage to Asia, still thought by many to lie near the islands newly 
discovered by Columbus. Hence, in 1497, the Venetian navigator 
Giovanni Caboto (better known as John Cabot [1450-1498]) sailed 
from the English port of Bristol across the North Atlantic to a large 
island, which he named Newfoundland, and the coast of modern-day 
Nova Scotia. In the process, he stumbled upon the Grand Banks, 
where the shoals of cod were so dense that the current of swimming 
fish pushed his ship backward. Returning to England, Cabot claimed 



to have reached the land of the Great Khan, and the following year 
King Henry VII (r. 1485—1509), who had commissioned the explor¬ 
er’s first voyage, authorized a second one to the area. But when that 
expedition failed to produce any precious goods or contact with the 
Chinese court, Henry lost interest in future exploration. Cabot’s con¬ 
tribution to contemporary geographic knowledge was nonetheless 
significant. Though his achievement was not recognized immediately, 
he had rediscovered the North American continent five hundred 
years after the Vikings had first visited its shores. 

At the turn of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese developed a 
brief interest in the same region, in the belief that it offered real pos¬ 
sibilities. Thus, in 1500, Gaspar Corte-Real (ca. 1450-ca. 1501) 
sailed into northwest Atlantic waters toward Greenland, probably 
having heard of Cabot’s claim to have found Cathay. Though pre¬ 
vented from cruising farther north along Greenland’s shores by ice¬ 
bergs on this voyage, Corte-Real embarked on a second expedition 
with two ships the following year. This time, he crossed from Green¬ 
land to modern-day Labrador and then cruised down the coast to 
Newfoundland. There he captured a number of natives whom he 
sent back to Portugal aboard the second vessel, as he continued his 
voyage south. At that point, Corte-Real and his ship disappeared, 
their fate unknown. In 1501 and 1502, meanwhile, his fellow coun¬ 
tryman, a farmer from the Azores named Joao Fernandes, sailed 
northwest under a royal patent from the king of Portugal, but also 
with backing from the Bristol merchants and approval from the 
English Crown. These expeditions added little to what John Cabot 
and Gaspar Corte-Real had found already, but the Portuguese word 
for someone of Fernandes’s social status ( Labrador ) was given on his 
behalf first to Greenland and then to the region of Canada that now 
bears the name. 29 

Portuguese endeavors at this date met with greater success far¬ 
ther south, when Pedro Alvares Cabral accidentally landed at Brazil 
in 1500, after making a wide sweep into the Atlantic during an 
outward voyage to India via the Cape of Good Hope. Seeing that the 
territory lay to the east of the demarcation line established by the 
Treaty of Tordesillas signed six years before and, moreover, that it 
constituted newly discovered land, Brazil fell legally into Portugal’s 
sphere of influence and belonged by right, therefore, to the 
Portuguese Crown. 

Eager to ascertain the size of their new acquisition, the royal 
authorities at Lisbon dispatched an expedition of three ships in 
1501. On board sailed the Florentine merchant Amerigo Vespucci 
(1451-1512), an amateur geographer, navigator, and explorer, who 

Spain and the Discovery of a New World 


had allegedly made an earlier voyage to the New World in 1499- 
1500 with the Spanish navigator Afonso de Ojeda (ca. 1465-1515) 
and the cartographer Juan de la Cosa (7-1501). Both men had served 
under Columbus in 1493. (Vespucci also claimed to have sailed with 
the great explorer at that time as a “commercial observer,” but his 
story has never been corroborated.) The three ships reached the 
Americas separately with Vespucci arriving on the coast of Brazil just 
south of the equator. He then supposedly explored the shoreline to 
the northwest, locating the mouth of the Amazon River, which he 
sailed part way up before turning back to rendezvous with Ojeda 
and De la Cosa. On returning to Spain in September 1500, Vespucci 
organized a follow-up expedition to Brazil that sailed in May 1501. 
Arriving at the northeasternmost point of South America, he headed 
southward to determine the extent of the mainland. On 1 January 
1502 he entered a great natural harbor he named Rio de Janeiro in 
honor of New Year’s Day, before continuing on to the mouth of the 
Rio de la Plata and down the Patagonian coast as far, he alleged, as 
50° south latitude. If his claim is genuine, then the land he report¬ 
edly sighted in those waters might have been South Georgia Island, 
near the Antarctic Circle. 

Although widely believed in his own time, Vespucci’s claim is 
generally not accepted by modern scholars, who view the narratives 
he wrote of his other two voyages with equal skepticism. Ultimately, 
however, the authenticity of his accounts is irrelevant. What matters 
is that Vespucci’s alleged explorations, combined with those of 
Cabot, Corte-Real, Ojeda, De la Cosa, and other navigators, increas¬ 
ingly demonstrated that what Columbus had found in the western 
Atlantic was not merely an outlying archipelago of China or Japan, 
but part of a vast unknown landmass of continental proportions that 
lay between Europe and the Far East by a western route. Vespucci’s 
descriptions, contained in his published letters, were especially sig¬ 
nificant here. Not only was he among the first to comprehend this 
essential geographic fact and to understand, therefore, the broader 
implications of the early discoveries in the western hemisphere; he 
also coined the popular phrase “New World” to distinguish it from 
the “old” worlds of Europe, Africa, and Asia. For these reasons, the 
geographer Martin Waldseemiiller—who printed Vespucci’s letters in 
his Introduction to Cosmography (1507), along with updated maps of 
the world based upon information from the latest explorations— 
christened the new lands America, after the Latinized version of 
Vespucci’s Christian name, Amerigo. The label was applied subse¬ 
quently to the northern continent, as well, by Gerardus Mercator, 
when he published his world atlas in the 1580s. Since then, the two 



continents of the western hemisphere have been known respectively 
as North America and South America. 

Thus, in less than a century of maritime exploration, the whole 
shape of the world had changed, with momentous consequences for 
European expansion. Those kingdoms with access to the Atlantic 
Ocean now enjoyed commercial and colonial opportunities all but 
denied to the landlocked states of central Europe and the Mediterra¬ 
nean, which had hitherto dominated trade with the East. Already, 
tiny Portugal had begun to exploit its naval advantage in maritime 
Asia, where it soon established a trading post empire based on con¬ 
trol of the sea lanes. Meanwhile, those who followed in Columbus’s 
wake laid the foundation for Spain’s vast colonial possessions in the 
New World. Recognizing the abundant opportunities offered by the 
American continents and Caribbean islands for entrepreneurs or 
those who sought a fresh start in life elsewhere, between 1493 and 
1600 an estimated 200,000 Spaniards immigrated to the New World. 
With them came conquistadors like Hernan Cortes and Francisco 
Pizzaro who, with small forces at their back, subdued the great Aztec 
and Inca Empires, while acquiring fame and fortune for themselves. 
Inspired by their example and hoping for similar achievements by 
force of arms, other adventurers met with less success but in the 
course of their journeys explored much of the American interior. In 
due time, these commercial, colonial, and military ventures led to 
the growth of major new trading networks that linked the old world 
with the new. 


1. Charles R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415—1825 
(London: Hitchinson & Co., 1969), 1-2. 

2. “Epistle to the most noble Prince and Catholick king, Charles, Pe¬ 
ter Martyr of Angleria wisheth perpetual felicity,” October 1516, in Pietro 
Martire d’Anghiera, The Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India, Richard 
Eden, trans. ([New York]: Readex Microprint, 1966), n.p. 

3. Quoted in Boxer, Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1. 

4. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of 
Nations (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), Book 4, Chapter 7 “Of 
Colonies,” Part 3, 271. 

5. Benjamin Keen, trans. and ed., The Life of the Admiral Christopher 
Columbus by His Son Ferdinand (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University 
Press, 1959; reissued 1992), 14. Cited hereafter as Ferdinand Columbus. 

6. Ibid. 

Spain and the Discovery of a New World 


7. “Cipangu” was the name given by Polo to the Japanese archipel¬ 
ago, which he described from rumors heard in China, but never visited. 

8. Ferdinand Columbus, 18-19. 

9. Ibid., 15. 

10. Ibid., 35. “To covenant”: to sign an agreement or contract. 

11. Ibid. 

12. See Washington Irving, The Life and. Voyages of Christopher Colum¬ 
bus, John H. McElroy, ed. (Boston: Twayne, 1981), Book 2, Chapter 3, 47-53. 

13. Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, General and Natural History of the 
Indies, excerpted in The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, J. M. Cohen, 
trans. and ed. (London: Penguin, 1969), 36. 

14. Ferdinand Columbus, 42. 

15. Granada Capitulations, 30 April 1492, in The Booh of Privileges 
Issued to Christopher Columbus by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel, 1492- 
1502, Helen Nader, trans. and ed., in vol. 2 of the Repertorium Columbia- 
num, Geoffrey Simcox, gen. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 
1996), 67. 

16. “Digest of Columbus’s Log-Book on His Lirst Voyage, Made by 
Bartolome de las Casas,” in Cohen, ed., Four Voyages of Columbus, 51. 

17. Ibid., 56. 

18. Ibid., 73. 

19. Lerdinand Columbus, 86. 

20. Ibid., 99. 

21. Letter of Columbus to various persons describing the results of 
his first voyage and written on the return voyage, in Cohen, ed., Four Voy¬ 
ages of Columbus, 130. 

22. Ibid., 122. 

23. John H. Parry, The Spanish Seaborne Empire (London: Hutchinson, 
1966), 45^16. 

24. Lor the full text of the papal decree, see Nader, Book of Privileges, 

25. “Narrative of the Third Voyage of Christopher Columbus to the 
Indies, in which he discovered the mainland, Dispatched to the Sovereigns 
from the Island of Hispaniola,” in Cohen, ed., Four Voyages of Columbus, 

26. Ibid., 218. 

27. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christo¬ 
pher Columbus (Boston: Little, Brown, 1942), 5-6. 

28. Kay Brigham, trans., Christopher Columbus’s Booh of Prophesies 
(Barcelona: Libros CLIE, 1992), 178-179. 

29. Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance, 1420-1620 
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), 144. 


and the Search for 
a Northern Passage 

to China 

At the threshold of the sixteenth century, two urgent matters con¬ 
fronted the Spanish monarchy in the Americas. One was the need to 
secure possession of its recent acquisitions in the Caribbean by 
means of colonization and the imposition of royal authority through 
the establishment of settled colonial administration. The second was the 
need to determine the geographic extent of the lands and islands 
that composed the New World, whose continental proportions were 
still a subject of speculation in 1500, but with a specific view to con¬ 
tinuing the search for a viable westward sea route to Asia and its 
markets. To be sure, within a short time following Columbus’s initial 
voyages of 1492 and 1493, some observers had begun to doubt his 
claim to have reached the westernmost islands of the Far East. Most 
contemporaries were not yet so skeptical, however. The subsequent 
explorations of John Cabot for England and Gaspar Corte Real for 
Portugal to the shores of what later became identified as North 
America were both undertaken with the same objective as that of 
Columbus. Their common purpose was to find a way to Cathay. The 
principal goal of Columbus’s last two voyages was a similar search 
for Asia, however haphazard, in his enduring belief that it lay close 
to the Antilles. 

As time passed and the geographic evidence mounted from 
these early explorations across the Atlantic, however, it became 
increasingly clear that a great landmass, unknown hitherto, blocked 
the route of anyone who would sail farther west. Thus began the 


systematic hunt for a westward passage either through or around the 
Americas, perhaps as early as 1505, though certainly by 1510, which 
superceded the earlier search for the East Indies in the Americas 
themselves. That new quest consisted, moreover, of two independent 
lines of advance, one pursued by Spanish mariners, the other pur¬ 
sued by Spain’s English, French, and Dutch rivals. First was the 
discovery, if possible, of a navigable strait through the American 
continents westward or southward of the Caribbean islands. Second 
was the search for a passage somewhere in the north Atlantic, 
beyond the limits of Spain’s New World possessions. It was conse¬ 
quently on the race to find such a sea route through Arctic waters, 
whether to the northwest around the American continents or to the 
northeast around the top of Russia, that much of the exploring activ¬ 
ity during the later sixteenth century focused. 

That activity was prompted further, meanwhile, by the Spanish 
Crown’s interest in colonizing the Caribbean islands it already pos¬ 
sessed under effective royal authority and its ambition to acquire 
additional territories by means of exploration and conquest on the 
American mainland. Following the chaotic administration of La 
Isabella under Christopher Columbus and the struggling colony’s 
removal to a healthier location on the island of Hispaniola by his 
brother Bartholomew, effective government in the Spanish West 
Indies began in 1502 with Frey Nicolas de Ovando, who arrived in 
command of thirty ships and twenty-five hundred more people to 
reinforce the three hundred surviving settlers. An experienced soldier 
and strong disciplinarian, the new governor tamed the unruly colo¬ 
nists from the outset of his administration, forcing them to build 
proper houses, plant crops, and raise livestock to support them¬ 
selves. At the same time, he extracted from the native Taino people 
tribute payments in produce and forced labor under a repartimiento 
(also called encomienda ) system, inaugurated by Columbus. As a 
result of his stern direction, during the six years of Ovando’s gover¬ 
norship the fledgling colony was established on a firm foundation, 
began to flourish, and soon enjoyed a modest prosperity. 1 

Hispaniola also served as a base of operations and supply, 
meanwhile, for further exploration of the Caribbean islands and the 
mainland coasts. Already in 1499, for example, separate expeditions 
under Vincent Yanez Pinzon (former commander of the Pinta ) and 
Afonso de Ojeda (with Amerigo Vespucci aboard) had sailed from 
the colony along the shores of Venezuela, Guiana, and northern 
Brazil. A subsequent third exploration of the Venezuelan coast dis¬ 
covered rich pearl fisheries near modern Maracaibo, which prompted 
the establishment of a settlement at New Cadiz on the island of 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


Cubagna to exploit that source of wealth. In 1500, Rodrigo de 
Bastidas (1460-1526) visited the shores of the Gulf of Darien off 
present-day Colombia, followed two years later by Juan de la Cosa’s 
more thorough exploration of the same area. In 1502, Christopher 
Columbus similarly sailed from Hispaniola on his fourth voyage, dur¬ 
ing which he coasted Honduras, Costa Rica, and the narrow Isthmus 
of Panama, where attempts to found colonies in 1509 at Veragua— 
the Columbus family’s only mainland possession after the explorer’s 
death—and on the northern coast of Colombia failed miserably. 
Still other expeditions originating from Spain’s colonial outpost on 
Hispaniola focused on the islands of Jamaica (1509) and Cuba (1511), 
both of which were quickly wrested from their native inhabitants 
and settled successfully. 

Undaunted by the failure to colonize Veragua and northern 
Colombia, a further expedition sailed in 1510 to the Gulf of Uraba 
at the lower end of the Isthmus of Panama. Although a different 
commander had been appointed initially, the real leadership was pro¬ 
vided by a popular desperado, bankrupt, and stowaway on the voy¬ 
age named Vasco Nunez Balboa (1475-1519), who had accompanied 
Bastidas to the region in 1500. Described as a charismatic, decisive, 
and able, though unscrupulous, and irreverent man and the first of 
the great conquistadores who won Spain’s American empire, 2 Balboa 
directed the new expedition to the western side of the Gulf of Uraba, 
where he founded the colony of Santa Maria de la Antigua del 
Darien, the first permanent European settlement on the mainland of 
the Americas. After consolidating his authority over the small colony 
under commission from the Spanish Crown as interim governor and 
captain general of Darien (as Panama was then called), Balboa 
entered the interior, where he soon subdued the native inhabitants. 
He defeated local resistance, formed useful alliances with native 
chieftains, and generally enlarged the settlement of Santa Maria. In 
the process, he heard reports of tribes to the south and west that 
possessed great wealth—a reference probably to the Incas, whose 
empire in Peru would be overthrown by Balboa’s chief lieutenant, 
Francisco Pizarro, in 1530-1535. At the same time, rumors circu¬ 
lated of a great sea that lay on the farther side of the Sierra de 
Quaraca Mountains. 

Eager to locate that sea and acquire gold along the way—“For 
hunger of gold,” wrote the chronicler Pietro Martire d’Anghiera in 
1516, “did nonetheless encourage our men to adventure these perils 
and labours [more] than did the possessing of the lands” 3 —Balboa 
set out from Santa Maria in September 1513 with two hundred 
Spaniards and one thousand Indians. The mixed force crossed the 



lower part of Panama, through dense jungle and over rugged moun¬ 
tains, to the opposite side of the isthmus. There, on 25 September 
from a hilltop he had climbed alone to obtain an unobstructed view, 
Balboa became the first European to gaze upon the Pacific Ocean 
from the western coast of the New World. “Great was his joy,” 
recounted Pietro Martire three years after the event, “and in the pres¬ 
ence of the natives he took possession, in the name of ... Castile, of 
all that sea and the countries bordering on it.” 4 

The Search for a Strait 

Balboa’s discovery was enormously significant for the history of 
maritime exploration and developing notions of American geography. 
It not only confirmed the existence of the great South Sea (so-called 
because it appeared to he south of the middle isthmus), of which the 
Spaniards had heard only vague rumors to date but also revealed 
the narrow breadth of land that seemed to divide the Atlantic from 
the newly found Pacific. This intelligence inspired renewed hope that 
a strait could be found through the isthmus to complete a westward, 
all-sea route to Asia under Spanish control, which remained a pri¬ 
mary goal of the royal authorities back in Madrid. For until the con¬ 
tinental proportions of the New World were established fully by 
subsequent voyages, many contemporaries (wrote Pietro Martire) 
were no less convinced than Columbus had been that “certain large 
straits or entrances ... should pass through the [lands] lying on the 
west side of the Island of Cuba.” 5 It was simply a matter of finding 

Hence, while some Spaniards began to exploit opportunities 
in the Americas themselves at this time, whether by settlement, 
exploration, or conquest on the mainland, for the moment most con¬ 
tinued to seek a viable western route to the Far East somewhere 
through the New World. Their motives were obvious. On the one 
hand, explained Pietro Martire, these adventurers were “devoured by 
such a passion to discover this strait that they risk a thousand dan¬ 
gers; for it is certain that he who does discover it—if ever it is 
discovered—will obtain the imperial favour, not to mention great 
authority” and personal riches. On the other hand, continued 
Martire, national interests were also at stake; for “if, indeed, a pas¬ 
sage between the South and the North [i.e., Atlantic] Seas is discov¬ 
ered, the route to the islands producing spices and precious stones 
will be very much shortened, and the dispute begun with Portugal 
[in 1494] ... will be eliminated” by a Spanish victory in the race to 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


reach the spice markets of the Far East. 6 Although the Spaniards did 
not yet know it, that competition had already been won by their 
rivals in 1513, when the first Portuguese ships reached the spice- 
producing islands of the Moluccas—the same year that Balboa 
crossed the Isthmus of Panama to sight the Pacific Ocean on the 
other side. 

Until that outcome was confirmed, however, the hope of finding 
a passage through the New World encouraged further exploration 
along the Caribbean coasts of Central America by Spanish mariners 
and, as soon as boats could be built, of the Pacific coasts, as well. 
When, for example, Balboa led another expedition across Panama in 
1516, he had the parts of disassembled ships hauled across the 
isthmus to the Gulf of San Miguel. Once there, the vessels were 
reconstructed and launched to begin exploration of Panama’s Pacific 
shores. Even after Balboa’s arrest and execution on false charges of 
treason in 1519, exploration of the “South Sea” coast continued 
under other captains who competed with each other to discover the 
much-desired mystery of the strait. Similar attention was directed, 
meanwhile, to the Caribbean side of Central America, which was 
explored by three successive expeditions in 1516, 1517, and 1519, 
all sent from Cuba. Although a western passage was not found, at 
least the northern rim of the Gulf of Mexico was traced, while the 
mouth of the Mississippi River was probably discovered and partially 

A concurrent search for the elusive strait was also carried on by 
land. In 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon (1460-1521), a veteran of 
Columbus’s second voyage and subsequent Spanish settlement of the 
West Indies, had landed on the “island” of Bimini. This region likely 
corresponded to the southernmost part of Florida, which Ponce de 
Leon had renamed in honor of Easter Sunday (Pasqua Florida), the 
day that he claimed the territory for Spain. According to a romantic 
tradition first reported by Pietro Martire with due skepticism, this 
enterprise had been inspired by native tales that there existed on 
Bimini “a continual spring of running water of such marvelous vir¬ 
tue, that the water thereof being drunk, perhaps with some diet, 
maketh old men young again.” 7 In reality, Ponce de Leon held a 
royal commission to search for Bimini, then conquer and colonize it. 
For six months, he explored both coasts of the Florida peninsula by 
sea, perhaps as far north as present-day Sarasota on the Gulf of 
Mexico side and the Okefenokee Swamp on the Atlantic side, before 
returning to Puerto Rico. In 1521, Ponce de Leon led a second expe¬ 
dition to the same area, with the dual intention of planting a colony 
and ascertaining whether Florida was an island, in fact, or part of 


the mainland. Like the earlier voyage, the goal was also to find a 
strait, if possible, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But after five 
months of fruitless effort and repeated Indian attacks, during one of 
which the explorer was mortally wounded, the attempt to colonize 
Florida was abandoned and the survivors sailed back to Cuba, where 
Ponce de Leon died. 

In the meantime, two expeditions of great significance to the 
establishment of Spain’s empire in the New World and the discovery 
of a western passage to Asia set out in 1519, one on land and the 
other by sea. In that year, Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) 
embarked from the Spanish port of Sanlucar on what would become 
the first circumnavigation of the globe, and Hernan Cortes (1485— 
1547) landed on the shores of Mexico to begin the conquest of the 
Aztec Empire, completed two years later. Although the search for a 
strait that linked the Atlantic to the Pacific was not originally part of 
Cortes’s plans, he believed that one actually existed and turned part 
of his attention to finding it, once the Aztecs had been defeated. His 
efforts were reported in the last three of his five famous letters to 
Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (also king of a united Spain since 
1516), in which the great conquistador made interesting references 
to a western passage. 

For some time already, wrote Cortes in his third letter dated 
15 May 1522, he had heard accounts of the South Sea, adding that 
once a route to it had been discovered through, across, or around 
the mainland, “we shall find many islands rich in gold, pearls, pre¬ 
cious stones and spices, and many wonderful and unknown things 
will be disclosed to us.” 8 His comments reflect the still general belief 
that the Pacific, recently sighted from Panama by Balboa, was the 
eastern portion of the Indian Ocean. In his mind, and that of most 
contemporaries, this sea was not confined to its actual limits in Asia, 
but rather thought of as extending far eastward past the Moluccas. If 
that were true and Columbus were proved correct after all, then the 
spice-producing islands of the East lay just west of Spain’s expanding 
colony in Central America. Not until January 1524, however, did 
Cortes dispatch an expedition of six ships under the command of 
Cristobal de Olid to explore the coast of Yucatan toward Darien in 
search of the hoped for strait—“the one thing in the world which I 
want to discover,” wrote the conquistador to Emperor Charles, 
“because of the great service which I am certain Your Caesarian 
Majesty will receive thereby.” 9 

Although no passage was located on this occasion, in his fourth 
letter, written on 15 October the same year, Cortes urged that 
the search continue and that new expeditions “investigate the 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


unexplored coast between the Panuco River [in modern Mexico] and 
the coast of Florida, which was discovered by ... Juan Ponce de 
Leon, ... northwards to Los Bacollaos [the Bahamas], for it is 
believed that there is on that coast a strait leading to the South Sea.” 
He advised that similar expeditions be sent along Panama’s Pacific 
shores in the firm conviction that a westward passage “cannot escape 
those who go by the South Sea and those who go by the Northern 
[sea].... Thus on one coast or the other they cannot fail to discover 
it.” 10 Such a find, argued Cortes further, would open a more favor¬ 
able and far shorter all-Spanish ocean route to Asia than that found 
recently by Magellan, whose achievement was familiar to, and envied 
by, the conqueror of Mexico. 

The World Encompassed 

Although his name is most closely associated with the first cir¬ 
cumnavigation of the globe, that outcome was not part of Magellan’s 
original plan. Also ironic is that he himself never completed the voy¬ 
age. He died in 1521 while fighting the enemy forces of a native ally 
on the Philippines Islands. So the real distinction of being first to sail 
around the world belongs to the eighteen ill and starving survivors 
of the expedition, who limped back to Spain a year after Magellan’s 
death. Yet Magellan can be credited exclusively with one major 
achievement. However vague his initial motives might have been 
for personal wealth or reputation, he found the long-sought strait 
through the New World that bears his name and completed 
Columbus’s dream of sailing west to reach the East. But his voyage 
discovered more than an uninterrupted western sea route to Asia. It 
revealed not only the daunting expanse of the Pacific Ocean at which 
no European had even guessed, thus destroying the myth that fabled 
Cathay lay just beyond the horizon from the Americas, but also that 
Portugal—not Spain—had won the maritime race to possess the 
much-coveted spice islands of the East Indies. 

A Portuguese by birth and nationality, Ferdinand Magellan was 
already familiar with Asia from personal experience, having served 
from 1505 to 1512 in Indian waters under Francisco de Almeida, 
Afonso de Albuquerque, and other notable commanders. During that 
period, he had participated in the naval actions against Diu, Goa, 
and Calicut. Two years after Albuquerque’s unsuccessful first attempt 
to seize the strategic Malayan port city of Malacca (1508-1509), 
Magellan had accompanied an expedition to the spice-producing 
Moluccas of present-day Indonesia. There, on the island of Ternate, 


relations were established with the native Muslim ruler in 1511 and 
a fortified factory built soon after. On his return to Portugal in 1512, 
Magellan had been ennobled and promoted to the captaincy as well, 
though despite his subsequent gallantry fighting against the Moors in 
Morocco he lost favor with King Manual I, reputedly for his role in 
an unauthorized sale of cattle to the enemy. Retreating in disgrace to 
Lisbon, Magellan tried next to secure royal support for a proposed 
expedition to exploit the spice trade in the Moluccas. When his 
appeal failed, he left Portugal in 1517 and offered both his services 
and his new plan to Spain. 

Inspired by letters received from Francisco Serrao, an old friend 
and comrade in arms living on Ternate, Magellan became convinced 
that some of the spice islands not yet seized by the Portuguese 
actually lay in the geographic zone assigned to Castile by the 1494 
Treaty of Tordesillas. In the meantime, Magellan had also heard 
reports from Portuguese mariners who had sailed near the Ryuku 
Islands north of Formosa (modern Taiwan) and had returned with 
embellished tales of great riches and civilization. Not only did 
Magellan accept these tales as genuine; he came to identify the 
Ryukus somehow with Old Testament references to Tarshish and 
Orphir, from which the treasure-laden ships of Solomon and Hiram 
of Tyre had brought back their fabulous wealth. The problem, how¬ 
ever, was to reach these Asian isles by some western sea route 
without trespassing on Portugal’s monopoly claim to the eastern 
hemisphere established at Tordesillas. 

The solution was straightforward. Like his contemporaries, 
Magellan believed that the Indian Ocean extended past the Moluccas, 
and that the spice islands themselves lay just west of Panama. He 
further accepted the prevailing theory that a transoceanic strait 
through the New World linked the Atlantic to the Pacific. That pas¬ 
sage had not yet been found. Moreover, successive Spanish explora¬ 
tions on both land and sea, from Florida and Mexico in the north to 
Darien in the south, had begun to expose the continental propor¬ 
tions of the Americas, thought by many until now to consist chiefly 
of islands instead of a single, continuous landmass. Pietro Martire 
noted the revision of his own thinking in this regard when, after 
careful scrutiny of available maps and reports, including the letters 
of Amerigo Vespucci, he concluded that the mainland “reacheth forth 
into the sea even as doth Italy.... But I now compare a pigmy or a 
dwarf to a giant, for that part thereof which the Spaniards have 
[so far] over run [i.e., explored] ... is more than eight times longer 
than Italy.” 11 Yet its southern extremity still remained undiscovered. 
On a positive note, however, many of Martire’s sources also indicated 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


that the American shoreline curved continuously southwestward 
from Brazil and the Rio de la Plata. This information led Magellan to 
speculate that somewhere farther to the south the continent was 
divided by a strait, providing the long-sought westward passage to 
the Far East. 

Although the cautious Spanish officials to whom Magellan ini¬ 
tially proposed the new expedition hesitated to endorse it, the young 
king-emperor Charles V was intrigued by the ambitious scheme and 
agreed to back it. Five ships were provided for the venture, along 
with a crew of 250 men, many of whom were Portuguese because 
Magellan mistrusted Spanish seamanship. Also accompanying the 
voyage was a volunteer Italian nobleman named Antonio Pigafetta 
(1491-1535), who became its unofficial chronicler. But not until 
the small fleet had sailed from the Spanish port of Sanlucar on 
20 September 1519—almost six months to the day after Cortes had 
landed on the coast of Mexico—did Magellan distribute maps to his 
captains or (recalled Pigafetta) “wholly declare the voyage which he 
wished to make, lest the [officers and crew] refuse to accompany him 
on so long a voyage as he had in mind to undertake, in view of the 
great and violent storms of the Ocean Sea whither he would go.” 12 

After an uneventful Atlantic crossing, Magellan and his fleet 
sailed along the familiar coastal regions of South America from Brazil 
to the Rio de la Plata, exploring the shores, charting the currents, 
and searching for the strait that contemporary Europeans felt certain 
existed. Pigafetta took copious notes of everything he saw, mean¬ 
while, from the flora and fauna to the native peoples encountered by 
the expedition on land, recording what he could of their appearance, 
customs, modes of living, and language. With the onset of the south¬ 
ern hemisphere’s winter season, however, the fleet was forced to 
interrupt its southern progress and anchor in a bay along the coast 
of Patagonia (Land of Big Feet) in present-day Argentina. Magellan 
named the region after the local inhabitants, who not only appeared 
to be of greater stature than Europeans, but who also wore enormous 
footgear. (This fact alone suggests that Vespucci had not sailed so far 
south as he claimed; otherwise, he might have named the region 
himself.) Over the next five months, Magellan endeavored to keep 
his men occupied and out of trouble. But dissension slowly mounted 
among many officers and seamen who resented their Portuguese 
commander. Pigafetta attributed their animosity to national pride 
and the intense ill will that the Castilians and Portuguese felt for 
each other. At all events, dissension soon turned into resistance, and 
Magellan was forced to quell a mutiny. He restored order by punish¬ 
ing the ringleaders while pardoning their followers, which regained 


the crews’ obedience. Nor was this the only mishap that the expedi¬ 
tion experienced during its winter layover. One of the ships was 
wrecked not long after the attempted mutiny while surveying the 
Patagonian shoreline. 

With his four remaining vessels, Magellan resumed his voyage 
before the end of winter. Finally on 21 October 1520 he sighted a 
strait, separating Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) from the mainland, 
which now bears his name. Over the next thirty-eight days, the small 
fleet negotiated its hazardous waters. Part way through, however, 
Magellan lost a second ship, when the frightened crew mutinied and 
returned to Spain. But still he persisted and on 28 November 
reached the western end of the passage. There he entered a sea so 
calm in contrast to the turbulence encountered in the narrow strait 
he had just navigated that he named it the “Pacific.” Then turning 
northward, Magellan probed the west coast of South America in 
search of favorable winds and currents that could carry him across 
the ocean in full expectation of reaching the Moluccas before long. 
Though his exact route is unknown, because he sighted land only 
once, his path clearly took him north of the numerous islands of 
Polynesia and Melanesia that litter the South Pacific. 

The voyage to Asia was an exercise in endurance that lasted far 
longer than Magellan had anticipated. It also represented a supreme 
accomplishment of seamanship in the Age of Discovery. The journey 
lasted nearly four months, from the day the small fleet left the west¬ 
ern shores of South America in December 1520 to the day it reached 
the Mariana Islands in early March 1521. During the long passage, 
food supplies and freshwater diminished on board Magellan’s three 
ships. “We ate biscuit, which was no long[er] biscuit,” related Antonio 
Pigafetta, “but powder of biscuits swarming with worms, for they had 
eaten the good. It stank strongly of the urine of rats. We drank water 
that had been putrid for days.” 13 Eventually, the sailors resorted to 
eating boiled leather, as well as sawdust and rats that sold for the 
princely sum of half a ducat apiece, when the men could trap them. 
In the wake of this privation followed scurvy, from which the crews 
began to sicken and die. This dreaded disease, the result of prolonged 
vitamin C deficiency, causes painful rotting of its victim’s gums, tooth 
loss, abscesses, hemorrhaging, physical weakness, lethargy, and finally 
death if not treated in time. Altogether, the illness killed nineteen of 
Magellan’s crewmen and afflicted another twenty-nine. 

Landing on Guam in the Marianas at last, the malnourished 
fleet took on fresh supplies and then continued its westward search 
for the Moluccas. Magellan was unaware that he was too far north of 
the spice islands’ latitude and, after ten days of sailing, discovered 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


the Philippines instead. After a brief exploration of one or two 
islands in the archipelago, he anchored at Cebu, where he gained the 
confidence of the native inhabitants and converted their ruler to 
Christianity. At this point, Magellan made the fateful decision to sup¬ 
port his new Asian ally in a military campaign against the neighbor¬ 
ing island of Mactan. During the fighting on 27 April 1521, the 
explorer was killed with forty of his men. 

With the Spanish fleet now severely shorthanded, the decision 
was made to burn one of the three remaining ships, and then to sail 
for Tidore (near Ternate) in the Moluccas under the command of 
Juan Sebastian del Cano (ca. 1487-1526). On arrival, they learned 
that a Portuguese squadron was approaching. To avoid capture, Del 
Cano loaded a cargo of spices aboard his ship, the Victoria, and 
departed for Spain via the Cape of Good Hope. The other surviving 
vessel was not so lucky. Having tried unsuccessfully to recross the 
Pacific, it turned back only to be seized by the hostile Portuguese. 
After a harrowing homeward voyage, meanwhile, the Victoria finally 
limped into harbor at Sanlucar on 6 September 1522, the sole vessel 
of Magellan’s original five to complete the first circumnavigation of 
the globe. Aboard were just 18 survivors of the initial 250 men who 
had sailed from Spain three years before, including Antonio Pigafetta 
who later published his journal of the voyage. Another 17 crewmen, 
either stranded in Asia or released by their Portuguese captors, 
returned subsequently by other routes, so that a total of 35 survivors 
reached home, at last. 

Although Ferdinand Magellan died before finishing the historic 
voyage he had initiated, his contribution to contemporary knowledge 
of world geography was profound. To begin with, since the ancient 
Greek mathematician Pythagoras, Europeans had known the earth to 
be spherical in shape, though for a long time that understanding 
remained theoretical in some respects. Yet it was on this important 
geographic premise that Christopher Columbus and other early 
explorers had embarked upon their voyages of discovery, fully confi¬ 
dent that it was possible to sail around the world to reach China. 
Now Magellan, or at least his single remaining ship, the Victoria, had 
provided a concrete demonstration that the earth was spherical in 
fact and not just in theory. The results of the voyage also made it 
possible for Europeans to form a more accurate notion, however dim 
at this early period, of the real ratio of land to water on the globe’s 

Magellan’s expedition had similarly proved that the earth’s 
oceans were interconnected, including the Indian Ocean, which 
had been thought to be a landlocked sea—much like the 


Mediterranean—since the days of Ptolemy in the first century a.d. 
This realization opened the way for Europeans, European culture, 
and European power to infiltrate every quarter of the globe. The 
circumnavigation had also revealed the vastness of the Pacific 
and established a route across it, though for many years to come 
Europeans would not entirely abandon Ptolemaic geography. They 
continued to think of the Pacific as an eastern extension of the 
Indian Ocean, and until the voyages of Vitus Bering in the eighteenth 
century proved them wrong, their maps still showed the Asian land- 
mass joining the Americas not far north of where Magellan had 
crossed the Pacific. As for the Americas themselves, Magellan’s explo¬ 
ration of the east and west coasts of the southern continent enabled 
European geographers to determine its dimensions more fully and 
more accurately. 

Finally, the first circumnavigation of the globe settled the 
enduring controversy over the Moluccas, and whether these islands 
lay within the Spanish or Portuguese zones negotiated at Tordesillas 
in 1494. Within twelve months of the Victoria’s return, the Confer¬ 
ence of Badajoz (1523-1524) met to resolve the issue between the 
two kingdoms but failed to reach a consensus. Over the next few 
years, the Spaniards actively renewed their efforts to discover an eas¬ 
ier and more convenient route to the Far East than that found by 
Magellan, as well as one that would pass only through the Spanish 

This interest prompted a succession of expeditions, starting in 
1524-1525 when Estavao Gomez (ca. 1474-ca. 1538) was sent north 
to find a western passage. A Portuguese by birth, he had originally 
sailed with Magellan in 1519 but had been aboard the ship that 
deserted the fleet and returned to Spain part way through the South 
American strait discovered by the explorer. Still in Spanish service, 
Gomez looked in vain for a western passage between the Bahamas 
and Florida as far, perhaps, as the Penobscot River in present-day 
Maine before returning to Europe after ten months. In 1526, Hernan 
Cortes wrote that he, too, was continuing the search for a strait by 
land, in order (wrote his secretary and biography, Francisco Lopez 
de Gomara) “to remove [the cause] of the conflict with Portugal over 
the Spice Islands,” while Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon was sent by sea to 
investigate the American coastline north of the island of Santo 
Domingo for the same purpose. 14 Both efforts ended in failure, how¬ 
ever, along with de Ayllon’s own death from fever. Also in 1526, John 
Cabot’s son Sebastian, who had entered Spain’s service in 1516, was 
dispatched with four ships and two hundred men to explore the Plate 
River estuary, which some thought was the key to the Pacific. Though 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


the estuary was examined, along with the Parana and Paraguay Rivers, 
the expedition was beset by native attacks, disease, hardship, and 
discipline problems, and finally returned to Spain in 1529 with only 
twenty-four survivors. 

Under the circumstances, Spain was compelled to admit defeat 
in the rivalry with Portugal over possession of the spice islands. By 
the Treaty of Zaragoza signed in 1529, the Spanish Crown formally 
acknowledged that the Moluccas lay within the sphere of Portugal’s 
maritime empire in Asia, in return for an indemnity payment of 
350,000 ducats. The treaty also laid the foundation for Spanish colo¬ 
nization of the Philippines after 1564 and gave the kingdom uncon¬ 
tested mastery of the Pacific Ocean for much of the sixteenth 
century. Thereafter, the Spanish Crown concentrated its energies on 
expanding its territorial possessions in Central and South America, 
from which it had begun already to derive unexpected riches. 

The Search for a Northern Passage 

The Treaty of Zaragoza brought to an end what may be 
regarded as the prologue to the Age of Discovery. The world was 
divided into separate zones claimed by Portugal and Spain. But these 
claims were theoretical, at best, for both maritime powers had only 
modest settlements overseas to confirm their ownership. Conse¬ 
quently, France, then England and the United Provinces (the Dutch 
Netherlands) began to demand a share in a way that challenged 
Portuguese and Spanish claims to the monopoly of trade and territo¬ 
rial acquisition, whether in Asia or the Americas, on a principle 
enunciated by contemporary Englishmen, that “prescription without 
possession availeth nothing.” 

The developing competition focused on three major arenas. 
One, of course, was the Far East, though it would not be for a cen¬ 
tury or more that France, England, or the United Provinces could 
accumulate the formidable concentration of naval strength and finan¬ 
cial resources needed to defeat the Spanish and Portuguese forces 
overseas, or seize and hold their outposts in maritime Asia. The 
other two arenas were associated with the Atlantic New World. First 
was the Caribbean, where Spanish occupation of the major island 
groups that composed the Greater and Lesser Antilles had left hun¬ 
dreds of smaller ones unoccupied or unclaimed. Scattered mostly 
along the Atlantic fringe, these islands soon attracted English, 
French, and Dutch interest because of their strategic location as 
potential bases from which to trade in contraband goods with 



Spanish settlers in violation of Spanish law, raid Spanish colonies 
when the opportunity arose, or plunder Spanish shipping homeward 
bound with cargoes of produce and treasure. Eventually, Spain’s 
rivals established permanent outposts of their own, to serve as settle¬ 
ments producing tropical crops (e.g., sugar, indigo, etc.) for export 
to Europe, as well as naval bases and commercial depots in the 
trans-Atlantic trade. In a very short time, these colonial possessions 
also became objects of European diplomacy and warfare, now con¬ 
ducted on a global scale. 

The second focus of competition in the New World was that 
huge and unknown portion of the newly discovered North 
American continent that stretched along the Atlantic seaboard. A 
vast region of uncertain geographic boundaries, its southern portion 
was labeled vaguely by the Spaniards as La Florida. The name was 
understood generally by contemporaries to encompass the whole 
territory extending from the Atlantic coast inland to modern-day 
New Mexico, and from the Gulf of Mexico indefinitely northward 
to the Carolinas, stretching as far perhaps as the Arctic Ocean 
where English and Portuguese mariners had started to direct some 

It is nonetheless curious, wrote historian Boies Penrose in 
1960, that when compared with Central and South America, 

the area encompassed in the present-day United States and 
Canada had but a meager history in the annals of Renaissance 
exploration. There were doubtless several reasons for this; the 
climate was harsher, the eastern half of the continent was 
clothed in an impenetrable primeval forest, precious metals were 
not readily accessible, the natives were ignorant and savage, and 
there were no wealthy empires such as those of the Incas and 
Aztecs. All these factors combined to make the North American 
continent a relative backwater during the sixteenth century as 
far as discovery and colonization were concerned. 15 

Though subsequent scholars have reassessed some of the conditions 
described by Penrose, two more should be added to his list. One is 
that for the maritime kingdoms of northern Europe, it was in some 
respects easier to occupy the smaller, unclaimed Caribbean islands 
or to raid Spanish shipping lanes and settlements already established. 
At this early stage, neither action required the intense allocation of 
national resources needed to break Spain’s grip on trade or territory 
that became characteristic of the European competition for empire 
during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The second 
is that for most Europeans, even those eventually engaged in 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


exploration and colonization of North America, Asia and its wealth 
remained the great prize far into the nineteenth-century Age of 
Imperialism. These reasons explain the search in earnest during 
much of the 1500s for a northern passage around the North 
American continent, outside the immediate range of Spanish might 
or territorial claims. 

The quest for just such a passage dates from 1509, when 
Sebastian Cabot (ca. 1476-1557), son of the Genoese discoverer of 
Newfoundland, sailed to the northeast coast of North America under 
sponsorship from the same Bristol merchants who had financed his 
father’s two earlier voyages. By that time, the explorations of the 
older Cabot, Columbus, and his near successors, including Amerigo 
Vespucci, had been documented in maps published by Martin 
Waldseemiiller in 1507. Although the full contours of the Americas 
were not yet known and their continental proportions remained a 
matter of conjecture, the new charts indicated a large southern land- 
mass between Europe and the Far East, but separated from Asia by a 
sea to the west. This concept was entirely new to Europe, where the 
prevailing geographic wisdom was that the so-called New World was 
merely an eastern extension of the East Indies. At all events, 
Sebastian Cabot’s goal in 1509 was to locate a westward water route 
north of that landmass, which made his voyage the earliest real effort 
to find a Northwest Passage. 

It was a bold attempt, for Cabot not only explored the coasts of 
Newfoundland and Labrador; he also reached the latitude of 67° 
north, just inside the Arctic circle, and might even have entered 
Hudson Strait and the eastern portion of Hudson Bay. According to 
his own account, he believed this section of the Atlantic to be the 
western sea indicated on Waldseemiiller’s maps, but he was pre¬ 
vented from sailing any farther by ice and a mutinous crew anxious 
to go home. On the return voyage, the explorer claimed to have 
sighted the coasts of modern-day Nova Scotia and Long Island, too, 
but this is uncertain. For his recollections of the expedition 
recounted in old age had so confused his voyage of 1509 with that 
of his father in 1497-1498 that modern geographers have been 
unable to sort out the details with absolute accuracy. Yet, Sebastian 
Cabot’s achievement was deemed sufficient in his own day to secure 
his appointment in 1512 as chief cartographer to the court of the 
new Tudor king Henry VIII and also to attract the attention of the 
Spanish Crown, which obtained his services in 1516 as pilot-general. 
His involvement thereafter in the search for a transoceanic strait 
through the South American continent on behalf of Spain consumed 
much of his remaining career. 



Meanwhile, further exploration of the north Atlantic languished 
until 1520, when a Portuguese vessel skirted the southern coast of 
Newfoundland, entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and investigated 
the Bay of Fundy after a failed attempt to plant a small colony on 
present-day Cape Breton Island. Far more significant, however, was a 
French expedition sent in search of a Northwest Passage three years 
later under Giovanni da Verrazano (1485-1528), a Florentine priva¬ 
teer whose capture of two Spanish treasure ships homeward bound 
from Mexico in 1522 had caught the attention of King Francis I. 
Coincidentally, news had also just reached Europe that Magellan had 
discovered a strait through the South American tip to the Pacific, 
thereby opening an all-sea route to Asia. Thus in 1523-1524, 
Verrazano was commissioned by the French monarch to undertake a 
voyage across the Atlantic to find a comparable northern passage 
around the Americas for France. 

Although the expedition failed in its primary purpose of discov¬ 
ering a route as hoped, its contribution to contemporary geographic 
knowledge of the New World was vital. For Verrazano’s exploration 
of North America’s shores from the vicinity of Cape Fear in present- 
day North Carolina to New England, Cape Breton, and a little 
beyond revealed a large landmass of continental proportions whose 
coastline was continuous from La Florida in the south to Newfound¬ 
land in the north. Verrazano was likewise the first European to visit 
and describe in detail what later became New York harbor, the 
Hudson River, Block Island, Narragansett Bay, Cape Cod, and coastal 
Maine. He was also the first European to sight Pimlico Sound across 
a narrow isthmus while sailing near Cape Hatteras, a body of water 
he mistook to be the Pacific Ocean. As a result of his error, the so- 
called Mare de Verrazano (Verrazano Sea) became for years afterward 
a persistent feature of contemporary maps and a subject of much 
speculation. Finally, by naming the entire region he had reconnoi- 
tered Francesca after his royal patron, King Francis I, Verrazano laid 
the foundation for French claims to a huge portion of the New 
World in competition with Spain, and eventually with England, too. 

Not for another decade, however, could France begin to exploit 
that claim or renew the search for a northern sea route to Asia. At 
war with the Habsburg emperor in Italy and Germany, the French 
king could ill afford to divert his attention or resources to overseas 
exploration. Only with the return of more settled political conditions 
was Francis I free to sponsor a new voyage to the north Atlantic, this 
time under Jacques Cartier (1491-1557). With financial backing 
from the French monarch, the expedition of three ships sailed from 
the port of St. Malo in April 1534, though whether its primary 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


purpose was to find a passage to the Pacific or merely to search for 
gold is unclear. Both were motives. At all events, after crossing the 
Atlantic, Cartier landed at Cape Bonaventure on Newfoundland to 
refit his ships before taking a careful survey of the island’s northern 
coast. From there, he sailed through the Strait of Belle Isle, 
despite the hazards of ice, and investigated both the Labrador and 
Newfoundland shores of that narrow passage. He also explored the 
coasts that rimmed the south side of the Gulf of St. Lawrence as far 
as Anticosti Island, touching in turn at modern-day Prince Edward 
Island, Chaleur Bay, and the Gaspe Peninsula. According to an 
account of the voyage published in English almost five decades later, 
on 24 July Cartier erected a thirty-foot-tall cross at Gaspe, to which 
he affixed “a shield with [the royal emblem of] three fleurs-de-lys on 
it, and in the top was carved in the wood with antique [Roman] let¬ 
ters Vive le Roy de France [long live the king of France],” thereby 
taking possession of the whole land in the name of Francis I. 16 

Despite his disappointment at finding neither gold nor a pas¬ 
sage to the Pacific, Cartier returned to St. Malo with a wealth of in¬ 
formation about the places he had explored and the native people he 
had encountered. During his second expedition in 1535, however, 
his hope of finding a strait revived briefly when he discovered the 
St. Lawrence River and sailed up it to the Indian village of Hochelaga, 
near the future site of Montreal. By that point, Cartier had traveled 
a thousand miles from the Atlantic, much of it inland, and he was 
only prevented from sailing farther upstream by rapids that blocked 
his way. The effort would have been useless, in any case. Informa¬ 
tion he had gathered from native sources, combined with his own 
investigations, revealed the St. Lawrence to be a river and not the 
strait to the Pacific for which he sought. As a contemporary later 
reported, Cartier “now knows that there is none.” 17 

But by that time, the focus of French interests in the Atlantic 
New World had begun to shift from the search for a Northwest 
Passage to settlement and territorial acquisition, always with the 
expectation of finding new sources of gold, spices, or other riches. 
Colonization was the chief object, consequently, of Cartier’s third 
voyage, which sailed in 1541 to the St. Lawrence basin with a well- 
equipped expedition of two hundred would-be settlers under the 
governorship of the sieur de Roberval. But the small colony of 
Charlebourg Royal, established at Cap Rouge near the site of 
present-day Quebec city, did not flourish, and after two miserable 
winters it was abandoned. Not until the beginning of the seventeenth 
century would the French undertake the colonization of Canada with 
greater success. 



Preoccupied, in the meantime, by renewed war with the Holy 
Roman Emperor during the 1540s and 1550s, France’s activities in 
the New World consisted largely of raiding Spanish vessels home¬ 
ward bound from Cuba and Mexico. That rivalry continued even 
after the return of peace in 1559, when the French Crown eyed 
the American coast just north of the Florida peninsula with 
increasing interest, in challenge to Spanish claims. But two colonies 
planted at Charlesfort (1562), near present-day Parris Island in 
South Carolina, and at Fort Caroline (1564), on the mouth of the 
St. Johns River in Florida, were destroyed and their garrisons mas¬ 
sacred by Spanish forces sent from Cuba to remove the double 
threat. These defeats effectually dashed French hopes of establish¬ 
ing a foothold on the south Atlantic coast, even had France not 
become too embroiled in domestic chaos during the remainder of 
the sixteenth century to engage in maritime exploration or coloni¬ 
zation, as the kingdom plunged into thirty-five years of civil and 
religious war. 

Despite the failure of these early first attempts to locate it, 
European navigators and geographers were still no less convinced 
than before the voyages of Cabot and Cartier that a passage some¬ 
where through Arctic waters not only existed, but could be found 
over time. Though such a passage was still only hypothetical, it 
appeared obvious to anyone familiar with world geography and mari¬ 
time exploration that there should be a shorter, more direct route to 
Asia via the North Atlantic than the long and hazardous voyage by 
way either of the Cape of Good Hope or the treacherous Strait of 
Magellan and the Pacific Ocean that lay beyond. To be sure, almost 
nothing was known in Europe at this time of the vast northern ice 
cap. Yet experienced navigators conjectured that if, as many had pre¬ 
dicted, the Tropics had proved passable at last, then the same should 
be true of the Arctic. 

Not until the second half of the sixteenth century, however, was 
the search for a northern passage resumed. Because of foreign war 
and domestic upheaval, France had withdrawn temporarily from the 
field of maritime exploration, while Portugal and Spain were preoc¬ 
cupied with consolidating their respective empires overseas. Besides, 
as both Iberian kingdoms had already found their own routes to Asia 
through the South Atlantic, the North Atlantic was of little interest 
to them, except for cod fishing in the rich waters off the Grand 
Banks of Newfoundland. If only by default, therefore, the quest to 
find a northern passage somewhere through the Arctic became a 
largely English enterprise that aimed at securing a share of the Asian 
spice trade. 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


Yet there were other reasons for this sudden burst of activity in 
England, whose participation in voyages of discovery prior to 1550 
had been sporadic at best. First was the creation of a royal navy 
under Henry VIII, combined with improvements in English maritime 
expertise and technology, which gave future voyages the protec¬ 
tion and support needed for success. Second was the accident of 
European politics, and in particular the Tudor Crown’s desire—even 
under Elizabeth I—for peaceful accommodation with Spain, and its 
unwillingness to challenge Portuguese control of the sea route 
around the Cape of Good Hope. Third was the spread of promo¬ 
tional literature for voyaging by English merchants, scholars, naviga¬ 
tors, and expatriates living in Seville who, inspired by the example 
of Spain, encouraged their fellow countrymen to undertake overseas 
ventures in pursuit of wealth and empire. Finally was a growing 
national spirit that had already begun to evolve in the more cohesive 
states of western Europe during the later Middle Ages and that was 
becoming increasingly apparent in England by the late sixteenth cen¬ 
tury. This emerging sense of national identity explains Richard 
Hakluyt’s resentful comment in the preface of his work The Principal 
Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation 
(1589) about how he had “both heard in speech and read in books 
other nations miraculously extolled for their discoveries and notable 
enterprises by sea, but the English of all others for their sluggish 
security, and continual neglect of the like attempts especially in so 
long and happy a time of peace, either ignominiously reported, or 
exceedingly condemned.” 18 

By 1550, these various developments had combined to provoke 
in England a fervor for voyages of discovery and exploration no less 
intense than that felt in Portugal since 1415 or Spain since 1492. 
This new fervor found its first expression in a series of profitable 
trading ventures to north and west Africa undertaken by English 
navigators after 1551, which set the pace for the kingdom’s maritime 
efforts during the remainder of the century. Also at this early date, a 
succession of voyages was planned and financed by a newly formed 
joint stock syndicate. Called the Company of Merchant Adventurers 
“for discovery of regions, dominions, islands and places unknown,” 
its first presiding governor was Sebastian Cabot, who had returned 
to his native soil in 1547 to live out his final years. Despite its ambi¬ 
tious name, the company’s real objective was to locate a sea route to 
Asia somewhere through North Atlantic waters and by that means 
acquire for England the same fortune in gold, trade, and spices 
which the West and East Indies had produced for Spain and 
Portugal, “whose subjects, industries, and travels by sea,” noted the 


company’s first commission, “have enriched them, by these lands and 
islands, which were to all cosmographers unknown.” 19 

Thus “seeing that the wealth of the Spaniards and Portuguese, 
by the discovery and search of new trades and countries was marvel¬ 
ously increased,” echoed Richard Hakluyt three decades later, “sup¬ 
posing the same to be a course and mean for them also to obtain the 
like, [the Merchant Adventurers] resolved upon a new and strange 
navigation ... for the search and discovery of the northern part of 
the world, to open a way and passage to our men for travel to new 
and unknown kingdoms,” above all China. 20 The first route to be 
advocated and attempted, however, was not in the northwest Atlantic 
as before, but in the northeast Atlantic around Norway and Russia 
through the so-called frostie sea. Hence, in May 1553, the company 
dispatched three ships with the express intention of sailing to Cathay 
by way of a Northeast Passage. Sir Hugh Willoughby (ca. 1500- 
1554), “preferred above all others,” wrote Hakluyt, “both by reason 
of his goodly personage [he was well born] as also for his singu¬ 
lar skill in the services of war,” was named captain-general of the 
expedition. 21 

Although the small squadron was separated in a storm near the 
Lofotu Islands off the Norwegian coast, Willoughby and two vessels 
pressed onward as far perhaps as Novaya Zemlya, a large island 
located north of the Arctic Circle in the Barents Sea. But with the 
close of the short Arctic summer fast approaching, he returned to a 
small anchorage in Lapland near Nordkapp, where he planned to 
pass the winter months. Tragically, the two ships were frozen in by 
ice, and the entire company perished from cold and starvation. As 
for the missing third vessel commanded by Richard Chancellor 
(d. 1556), it had entered the White Sea following its separation from 
the rest of Willoughby’s squadron and sailed to the Russian village of 
Archangel. From there, Chancellor traveled fifteen hundred miles 
overland in the dead of winter to Moscow, where he secured from 
Ivan the Terrible (Czar Ivan IV) extensive trading privileges for his 
countrymen that he took back to England in summer 1554. 

Chancellor’s maritime achievement was impressive, while the 
diplomatic and commercial contacts he had opened with Czar Ivan’s 
court were considered to be so important that he returned to Russia 
in 1555 to arrange the details of Anglo-Russian trade on behalf of a 
brand-new Muscovy Company formed earlier that year. At the same 
time, he learned of Sir Hugh Willoughby’s unhappy fate and recov¬ 
ered the late captain-general’s papers. But Chancellor’s two voyages 
contributed little toward resolving the problem of a Northeast 
Passage. Consequently, while the English captain-turned-ambassador 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


was preparing to leave Russia on his second and, as it turned out, 
fatal homeward journey in 1556, another expedition sailed from 
England under Stephen Borough (1525-1584) to carry on where 
Willoughby and Chancellor had left off. This was Borough’s second 
journey to the region, for he had served as ships master on Chancellor’s 
maiden voyage to Archangel. With a single small pinnace and a crew 
of just eight men, Borough sailed to the southern tip of Novaya 
Zemlya, passed through the narrow Kara Strait and into the Kara 
Sea, looking for the mouth of the Ob River. But the ship was forced 
to turn back by “terrible heaps of ice” and tempests so fierce, wrote 
Borough, “that we saw not the like, although we had endured many 
storms since we came out of England.... And thus being out of all 
hope to discover any more to the eastward this year,” the expedition 
wintered at the mouth of the Dwina River, and returned home the 
following spring. 22 

With Borough’s failure, attempts to reach China by means of a 
Northeast Passage flagged for more than twenty years, as Englishmen 
sought a different landward route from Moscow down the Volga 
River to the Caspian Sea, and thence through central Asia along por¬ 
tions of the ancient Silk Road. Not until 1580 did two English sea¬ 
men, Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman, undertake another attempt to 
pass around the north of Russia. Though they, too, managed to reach 
the Kara Sea as Borough had done, also like him they were so beset 
with ice, “uncertain currents, dark mists and fogs, and divers other 
fearful inconveniences they were subject [to] and in danger of,” 
wrote Elakluyt, that they were compelled to turn back with tragic 
results. 23 Jackman’s vessel vanished without trace off the Norwegian 
coast, and Pet returned to England only with great difficulty. With 
this new failure, English ardor to find a Northeast Passage cooled, 
and no more expeditions were sent from English ports for that pur¬ 
pose during the rest of the century. 

The task now fell to the Dutch, who took up the search in 
1594, when a fleet of three ships left Holland under the command of 
William Barents (d. 1597). Considered to be one of the greatest 
Arctic navigators, Barents sailed into the sea that now bears his name, 
coasted the whole length of Novaya Zemlya from north to south, and 
then penetrated the Kara Sea via the Kara Strait to the latitude of the 
Ob River. The expedition was a test of seamanship, during which 
Barents proved his skill. Forced to maneuver from patch to patch of 
open water—advancing, withdrawing, dodging, and turning about 
eighty-one times—only after twenty-five days and more than fifteen 
hundred nautical miles of sailing did he finally accept that he could 
proceed no farther and began the journey homeward. A second 


voyage in 1595 achieved still less, owing to the unusual severity of 
the previous winter, which had left the Kara Strait choked with ice. 

Barents’s third and final expedition in 1596 was also his boldest, 
for instead of setting his course either by the northwest or the north¬ 
east, he intended to cross the Pole itself. In the process, he discov¬ 
ered Spitsbergen Island deep within the Arctic Circle but was 
prevented by icebergs from going farther north. With his original 
plan no longer workable, Barents sailed eastward to Novaya Zemlya 
and rounded its northern tip, when disaster struck. His ship was 
caught and crushed by ice, forcing the expedition to spend the win¬ 
ter on a foreign shore in severe hardship. Living in almost complete 
Arctic darkness, their only shelter a single makeshift shed built 
entirely of driftwood, Barents and his men barely subsisted on what 
little wild game they managed to trap and “lepel leaves” (a form of 
grass) by means of which they avoided the worst consequences of 
scurvy. All the while they had to contend with ferocious attacks by 
hungry bears. The following spring, the survivors reached the 
Russian coast after a difficult journey in two open boats. Barents was 
not among them, however, for he died en route. 

Although Dutch interest in locating a Northeast Passage waned 
thereafter, two final attempts were made in 1607 and 1608 by 
English explorer Henry Hudson (ca. 1550-ca. 1611). He initially 
undertook to find a way between Greenland and Spitsbergen, but 
like Barents before him, he found his original course blocked by 
Arctic ice. Hudson’s subsequent expedition also met with failure. 
This time he followed the established route around Norway to the 
Barents Sea as far as Novaya Zemlya, when he too was forced back 
by ice. This was not Hudson’s last effort to find a sea route in the 
northeast, but his final voyage in 1609 to that end is usually associ¬ 
ated with the search for a strait in the northwest Atlantic that had 
resumed in 1576. For all intents and purposes, therefore, the quest 
for a Northeast Passage during the Age of Discovery ended with 
Hudson’s second expedition. Not until 1879 would the first success¬ 
ful navigation of the route be completed under Swedish sponsorship 
by the Finnish geographer Baron Nils Nordenskjold, after a voyage 
lasting a year and a half. 

But even before the search for a sea route around northern 
Russia to China was abandoned in the early seventeenth century, 
hope of finding a viable passage around the North American conti¬ 
nent revived, especially in England where Sir Humphrey Gilbert 
(ca. 1539-1583) emerged as its leading advocate. In fact, he pub¬ 
lished an enthusiastic treatise on the subject, A Discourse of a Discoverie 
for a New Passage to Cataia (1576), which drew heavily upon current 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


knowledge of geography, classical authors like the Roman naturalist 
Pliny the Elder, and conversations with various English mariners, 
some of whom had engaged in the search for a northeastern route. 
Gilbert argued that a westward passage across the top of North 
America was the more practical of the two in his firm belief that 
once past Labrador, the North American coast sloped southward 
and, hence, was more likely to be ice free. He further hypothesized 
that North America was in reality the lost island of Atlantis and, 
moreover, that the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America had 
its counterpart in the north, where the so-called Strait of Anian 
linked the Atlantic to the Pacific. 

Gilbert’s treatise was used to help raise financial support for the 
three voyages between i576 and i578 of Sir Martin Frobisher 
(ca. i535-1594), a gentleman adventurer and opportunist whose pri¬ 
mary objective was to find the northern passage so strongly advo¬ 
cated by his old friend and principal backer. That “passage to 
Cathay,” wrote Richard Hakluyt, was “supposed to be on the north and 
northwest part of America: where through our merchants may have 
course and recourse with their merchandise, from these our northern¬ 
most parts of Europe, to those Oriental coasts of Asia, in much 
shorter time, and with greater benefit than any others, to their no little 
commodity and profit.” 24 Sailing west from England in June 1576 
on his first voyage, Frobisher made his initial landfall in Greenland, 
before pushing on to discover Baffin Island. There he entered a deep 
inlet, now named for him, which he mistook for the desired strait. 
He also found quantities of dense and heavy black rock that he and 
others on the expedition believed to be gold ore, because of the way 
it sparkled in sunlight. But as it turned out, quoted Hakluyt from an 
old proverb ten years later, “all is not gold that glistens.” 25 In any 
event, that discovery aroused further English interest in the region 
for its apparent “show of great riches and profit” and led to the for¬ 
mation of the Company of Cathay. 26 Although Elizabeth I was rather 
more skeptical about this northern land she called Meta Incognita 
(worth unknown), the queen nevertheless purchased shares in the 
new enterprise. 

Named admiral of the Cathay Company, Frobisher sailed on a 
second venture in 1577 with the dual purpose of collecting more ore 
and pushing on to the Pacific Ocean through the strait he claimed to 
have found the previous year. But the admiral largely ignored the 
second part of his commission, and after loading his three ships with 
more of the black rock, he sailed directly back to England. During 
Frobisher’s third voyage in 1578—intended partly to collect more 
ore, partly to find the passage to Cathay, and partly to establish a 


colony in the New World—a violent tempest, followed by continu¬ 
ous fog and threat of ice, drove his ships off course into what is now 
Hudson Strait. Soon discovering his navigational error and also con¬ 
cluding that this might be a better passage to China than the route 
he thought he had located on his first voyage, Frobisher followed 
the strait for two hundred miles, “having always a fair continent 
upon his starboard side, and a continuous still of open sea before 
him.” 27 As the explorer later confessed, wrote Richard Hakluyt, “if it 
had not been for the charge and care he had of the fleet he both 
would and could have gone through to the South Sea, and dissolved 
the large doubt of the passage; which we seek to find to the rich 
country of Cathay.” 28 But he was prevented from pursuing that 
course by grumbling among his fearful crew that he had proceeded 
too far already. Thus compelled to turn back, Frobisher sailed for 
England after taking on board more ore. Otherwise, his third voyage 
was a failure like the other two. The colony was not established; the 
black rock proved to be worthless; and Gilbert’s Strait of Anian was 
never discovered. The Company of Cathy had been reduced to bank¬ 
ruptcy in the meantime. 

Yet, this first stage in the renewed quest for a Northwest 
Passage had not been entirely futile. For if Frobisher’s three voyages 
had accomplished nothing else, they had revealed at least that the 
North Atlantic consisted of islands and open water between Labrador 
and the Pole, as opposed to the older notion of a single impenetrable 
landmass. Nor did Frobisher’s failure dampen enthusiasm in England 
to locate the elusive Strait of Anian, even though several years 
elapsed before additional attempts were made. Twice, for example, 
Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed under royal patents granted by Queen 
Elizabeth to explore and colonize new lands for the Tudor Crown. A 
strengthening sense of national pride also motivated these voyages, 
for although the Cabots, wrote the chronicler Richard Haye, 

were the first finders out of all that great tract of land stretching 
from the cape of Florida unto those islands we now call the 
Newfoundland: all which they brought and annexed unto the 
Crown of England, ... the French, as they can pretend less title 
unto these northern parts than [even] the Spaniard, did but 
review [i.e., revisit] that discovered by the English nation, 
usurping upon our right, and imposing names upon countries, 
rivers, bays, capes or headlands, as if they had been the first 
finders of those coasts . 29 

Gilbert’s first two voyages were unsuccessful, however, for his ships 
were driven back by storms on both occasions. Notwithstanding these 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


initial setbacks, he made a third attempt in 1583, planning this time 
to plant a colony in North America that could also serve as a way 
station for ships bound to China and Japan through the Northwest 
Passage, in the absolute conviction that the strait existed. To that 
end, he sailed for Newfoundland where, in a deliberate act, he 
reasserted England’s possession of the island on behalf of Queen 
Elizabeth, in the presence of many Portuguese, French, Basque, and 
English seamen then fishing off the Grand Banks whom he had sum¬ 
moned to witness the ceremony. Ultimately, however, the expedition 
achieved little and ended in misfortune, when Gilbert and the ship 
he was sailing on sank in a heavy squall on the return voyage to 

Undaunted by this loss, a succession of English adventurers 
took up the quest, starting with John Davis (ca. 1550-1605). Recog¬ 
nized by historians as one of the most distinguished navigators of his 
time, Davis combined practical seamanship with theoretical skill and 
determination in a manner that placed him at the forefront of 
Elizabethan mariners. He not only designed and experimented with 
nautical instruments but also authored two books, one a manual on 
navigation titled The Seaman’s Secrets, the other a treatise on the 
Northwest Passage titled The Worldes Hydrographical Description, 
which was clearly influenced by the theories of his childhood friend 
and associate Sir Humphrey Gilbert. 

As chief navigator for the newly formed Northwest Company 
(est. 1584), Davis made three attempts to discover the passage, in 
1585, 1586, and 1587. His aim on each occasion was to chart a more 
northerly course than Frobisher had done, by searching for a strait 
somewhere between Greenland and the North American archipelago. 
In the process, he sailed repeatedly up the west coast of Greenland, 
touched ground at Baffin Island (where he also discovered Cumber¬ 
land Sound), passed by the entrance of Hudson Strait, and skirted 
the shores of Labrador. Everywhere, he encountered native peoples, 
whose appearance, customs, and modes of living he described briefly, 
and dodged floes of ice that were both dangerous and curious. 
During his second voyage in 1586, for example, Davis wrote that 
“we fell upon a most mighty and strange quantity of ice in one entire 
mass, so big as that we knew not the limits thereof, and being with- 
all so very high in form of a land, with bays and capes and like high 
cliffs, as that we supposed it to be land and therefore sent our pin¬ 
nace off to discover it: but at her return we were certainly informed 
that it was only ice.” 30 

Davis’s last expedition, in 1587, was his most significant, for 
after making his usual landfall at Greenland, he steered up its west 



coast to the very high latitude of 72° 46’, the northernmost point 
anyone had reached so far. There he sighted a mountainous headland 
near present-day Upernavik, which he christened Sanderson’s Hope 
after one of the voyage’s backers. Past this promontory lay the way 
to the true Northwest Passage, but Arctic ice frustrated his attempts 
to proceed any farther and compelled him to sail for England. This 
reverse by no means dampened Davis’s enthusiasm to undertake 
another expedition, but his seamanship was required at home for the 
time being, to deal with the threat of the great Spanish Armada that 
sailed against England in 1588. Hence, not until 1591 when the 
national danger had passed was he able to renew the search for a 
Northwest Passage, this time by looking for its western entrance in 
the north Pacific. To that end, he sailed with an expedition under 
Thomas Cavendish, which planned to circumnavigate the globe. But 
the small fleet was unable to negotiate the Strait of Magellan. Davis’s 
ship then became separated from the others in a storm, lost its sails, 
and drifted in the south Atlantic to the Falkland Islands. He man¬ 
aged to return to England in 1593 and spent the rest of his nautical 
career leading commercial voyages to the Far East, where he died in 
battle against Japanese pirates near Singapore in 1605. 

Despite these repeated failures, the English were not yet willing 
to abandon the search for a Northwest Passage. On the contrary, sev¬ 
eral more expeditions sailed between 1600 and 1631 before the quest 
was finally relinquished. In 1602, for example, the directors of the 
Honorable East India Company, formed just two years before, sent 
George Weymouth to find a route in the same region that Frobisher 
and Davis had looked. Though he successfully penetrated Hudson 
Strait, Weymouth was forced to turn back by a mutinous crew. The 
same fate befell Henry Hudson in 1610-1611, but with more tragic 
consequences. During his third attempt the previous year to find a 
Northeast Passage while in service to the Dutch East India Company, 
he had been forced to turn west by a rebellious crew that refused to 
follow Barents’s route northward. Hudson’s new course took him 
west to Newfoundland, from where he sailed southward along the 
American coast as far as Chesapeake Bay. Then retracing his steps to 
the north, he located the mouth of the river named for him and 
sailed up it almost as far as present-day Albany before returning 
home to Europe. 

On his last voyage in 1610-1611, Hudson determined to look 
for a route to the south of where his predecessors had searched. 
Following that course, he sailed through the strait named for him 
and into the great bay that lay beyond. Proceeding southward along 
its eastern shore in search of a strait, his progress was finally halted 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


by James Bay, after which Hudson beat up and down this large body 
of water in a vain effort to find his way into the Pacific. With the 
advent of winter, however, his ship was frozen in. The following 
spring, his crew—having suffered great hardship—mutinied. Hudson, 
his son, and a few loyal seamen were then set adrift in a small boat 
to die of exposure, while the mutineers sailed for England. 

Still more voyages followed. In 1612, Sir Thomas Button was 
sent by Hudson’s former backers to discover the late explorer’s fate 
and to continue the search for a northern sea route to the Pacific. 
Retracing his predecessor’s course through Hudson Strait, Button 
reconnoitered the shores of Hudson Bay as far as the mouth of the 
Nelson River where, iced in, he was compelled to spend the winter. 
Despite having suffered severe hardship, including the outbreak of 
scurvy among his crew, Button resumed his search for Hudson and 
the strait the following spring. For that purpose, he sailed north 
toward present-day Southampton Island at the mouth of the bay, 
where he hoped to locate the western passage, if not his missing 
countryman. Having found neither, however, Button returned to 

In 1615 and again in 1616, Robert Bylot, who had been on 
Hudson’s final expedition, and William Baffin took up the quest, but 
at first directed their search for a route to the Pacific north of 
Southampton Island. When this effort failed to produce results, on 
their second voyage to the region the two explorers followed Davis’s 
former route between Greenland and Baffin Island. Sailing along the 
west coast of Greenland beyond Sanderson’s Hope, they reached the 
very high latitude of 78°, having gone farther north than even Davis 
had sailed. But with their further progress blocked by pack ice, the 
explorers turned west across Baffin Bay and reconnoitered portions 
of the archipelago north of Baffin Island, before taking a careful sur¬ 
vey of the island itself. Only after they had made a complete circum¬ 
navigation of the ocean between Greenland and the Canadian Arctic 
did Bylot and Baffin return to England with a wealth of new geo¬ 
graphical information. Yet neither man understood how important 
that information was, for during the voyage they had discovered 
Lancaster Sound, a narrow strait that is, in fact, the entrance of the 
real Northwest Passage through Canada’s northern waters. 

Another fifteen years elapsed before a final effort was made dur¬ 
ing the Age of Discovery to locate a transoceanic route from the 
Atlantic to the Pacific around North America. In 1631, two separate 
expeditions left England, one under Luke Foxe and the other under 
Thomas James. Although neither voyage succeeded in locating a 
passage as hoped, together they provided the most thorough 


examination of Hudson Bay to date. But apart from adding to con¬ 
temporary knowledge of Arctic geography and navigation, both expe¬ 
ditions returned to England with little more to show. Thereafter, 
the search for a Northwest Passage was abandoned until the mid¬ 
nineteenth century. Only in i906 after a three-year voyage would 
Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundson successfully navigate his 
way through the Arctic to the Pacific, thus completing what the 
sixteenth-century mariners had begun. Not until f943 was the 
same route finished in a single season by the Canadian ship St. Roch 
under Captain Henry Larsen. 

Before the Second World War and the advent of transatlantic 
air passenger service, wrote author Jeannette Mirsky in f948, 

the Arctic was a region unknown to most people. It was all ice 
and snow, it was inaccessible, it was “at the top of the map.” ... 

[But] the Arctic is no longer remote; it is the modern Mediterra¬ 
nean, for around it stretch the great [modern] powers.... The 
Arctic has become part of our world. 31 

But, added historian J. H. Parry in 1963, accurate knowledge of the 
Arctic seas and coastlines became possible only in comparatively 
recent times with the aid of aircraft and icebreakers. Otherwise, the 
sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century voyages in search of an 
Arctic passage, 

whether northeast or northwest—imaginative, bravely led and 
increasingly thorough—were all failures; but failures only in an 
immediate sense. They added greatly to geographical knowledge 
and to navigational experience and confidence. Those who took 
part in them— and they included some of the best seamen of 
their day—found new lands and opened new trades, which their 
successors were to develop and exploit. 32 


1. John H. Parry, The Spanish Seaborne Empire (London: Hutchinson, 
1966), 49-50. 

2. Ibid., 52; Kathleen Ramoli, Balboa of Darien: Discoverer of the 
Pacific (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953), 14, 80, 175, 184. 

3. Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, First Book, Second Decade, Decades, 
52vo-53. Martire wrote his great work over several years, and each major 
section of the volume was called a “decade.” The decades were divided in 
turn into chapters, referred to as “books.” Only the obverse of each page in 

Circumnavigation and the Search for a Northern Passage to China 


the earliest English translation of Martire’s text is numbered, not the 
reverse. Hence “52vo” indicates the reverse side of page 52. 

4. Ibid., First Book, Third Decade, 91. 

5. Ibid., Sixth Book, Third Decade, 118. 

6. Francis A. MacNutt, trans. and ed., De orbe novo: The Eight Decades 
of Peter Martyr d’Anghera, 2 vols. (New York: G. E Putnam’s Sons, 1912), 
Ninth Decade, 2:283. 

7. Anghiera, Tenth Book, Second Decade, 86vo-87. 

8. Hernan Cortes, Letters from Mexico, Anthony Pagden, trans. (New 
Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 267. 

9. Cortes to Charles V, 15 October 1524, ibid., 301. 

10. Ibid., 326-328. 

11. Anghiera, Tenth Book, Second Decade, 85vo. 

12. Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the 
First Circumnavigation, R. A. Skelton, trans. (New York: Dover Publications, 
1969), 38. 

13. Ibid., 57. 

14. Francisco Lopez de Gomara, Cortes: The Life of the Conqueror 
by His Secretary, Lesley B. Simpson, trans. and ed. (Berkeley: University 
of California Press, 1964), 334. Originally, the biography formed part of 
the author’s larger work The Conquest of the Weast India. 

15. Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance, 1420-1620 
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), 142. 

16. Ramsay Cook, ed., The Voyages of Jacques Cartier, H. P. Biggar, 
trans. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983), 26. For the original, see 
Jacques Cartier, A Shorte and Briefe Narration of the Two Navigations and 
Discoveries to the N orthweast Partes called Newe Fraunce (London: 
1580), 21. 

17. Lagarto to King John II of Portugal, 22 January 1539(?), Cook, 
Voyages of Jacques Cartier, 131. 

18. Richard Hakluyt, Voyages and Discoveries: The Principal Navigations, 
Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the Eriglish Nation (London: Penguin, 
1985), 32. 

19. “Ordinances for the direction of the intended voyage for Cathay,” 
ibid., 55. 

20. “The new navigation and discovery of the kingdom of Muscovy, 
by the northeast, in the year 1553,” ibid., 60. 

21. Ibid., 61. 

22. “The Navigation and Discovery towards the river Ob, made by 
Stephen Burrough,” ibid., 74. 

23. Preface to the second edition, 1598, ibid., 35. 

24. “The Second Voyage of Martin Frobisher, made to the west and 
northwest regions, in the year 1577,” ibid., 188. 

25. Ibid., 191. 


26. “The Third voyage of Captain Frobisher, pretended for the Discov¬ 
ery of Cathay, 1578,” ibid., 187. 

27. Ibid., 201. 

28. Ibid., 202. 

29. “A report of the voyage attempted in the year of our Lord 1583 by 
Sir Humphrey Gilbert,” ibid., 231-232. 

30. “The second voyage attempted by Mr. John Davis with others, for 
the discovery of the North Passage, in Anno 1586,” ibid., 300. 

31. Jeannette Mirsky, To the Arctic! The Story of Northern Exploration 
from Earliest Times (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), xxiv. 

32. John H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration 
and Settlement, 1450 to 1650 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 
1963), 206. 

A fifteenth-century reproduction of a world map from the Geography of Claudius 
Ptolemy. While his knowledge of the Mediterranean Sea and adjacent lands was 
reasonably accurate, everything south of Africa’s northern coast is labeled Terrae 
Incognitae (“unknown lands”). The Indian Ocean is also represented as a 
landlocked sea. (Courtesy of Library of Congress) 

A contemporary portrait of Prince Henry “the Navigator,” who sponsored the early 
Portuguese voyages of exploration and is rightly credited with having launched 
the European Age of Discovery. (Courtesy of Library of Congress) 

Although no portrait of Christopher Columbus was painted in his own lifetime, 
this is a sixteenth-century representation of the Genoese discoverer of the New 
World. (Courtesy of Library of Congress) 

A nineteenth-century portrayal of Ferdinand Magellan, whose expedition across 
the Pacific Ocean from South America in 1519 1522 was the first to circum¬ 
navigate the globe, although Magellan was killed in the Philippine Islands and 
did not complete the voyage. (Courtesy of Library of Congress) 

A modern reproduction of the caravel Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus’s 
flagship on his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492. (Courtesy of 
Library of Congress) 

The world map published by Martin Waldseemiiller in 1507 was the first to name the 
lands discovered by Columbus in the western Atlantic “America,” after Amerigo Vespucci. 
Note that South America is represented as a sliver of land, for no one yet knew its continental 
proportions. By contrast, Africa and portions of Asia are portrayed with reasonable accuracy. 
(Courtesy of Library of Congress) 

A nineteenth-century copy of a sixteenth-century portrait of Martin Frobisher, 
who made three voyages to the Arctic in an unsuccessful search for a Northwest 
Passage to China. (Courtesy of Library of Congress) 

This romanticized picture painted in the nineteenth century represents the 
abandonment of Henry Hudson, his son, and a few loyal seamen in Hudson Bay 
by the explorer’s mutinous crew. The castaways disappeared without trace. 
(Courtesy of Tibrary of Congress) 

This world map, published in 1565 by F. Bertoli, not only reveals how improved 
European knowledge had become of the geographic contours of Asia, Africa, and the 
New World as a result of successive voyages of exploration, but it also clearly shows 
the Terra Australis Incognita or Great Southern Continent that Europeans believed 
existed in the southern part of the globe. (Courtesy of Library of Congress) 

This engraving, copied from an eighteenth-century original painting, portrays 
Captain James Cook, who is widely regarded as the greatest explorer of the 
Pacific Ocean. (Courtesy of Library of Congress) 

vUsxmsw rjouTii l i, r 

A portrait of French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, whose voyage to 
the Pacific Ocean was less extensive than those of his English contemporary 
James Cook, but whose contributions to European geography and scientific 
knowledge of the Great South Sea were nonetheless significant. (Courtesy of 
Library of Congress) 

Has! Siberian 

\ Sea 






of Japan 

pacific \ 


Mediterranean Sea 












Souihpaclflc ocean 
(The great South-Sea) 




Antarctic ocean 

World continents, oceans, and seas. 


' Islands 




,! Islands 
Guam e> (Ladrones) 

Hawaiian Islands 

j Islands 



= Islands 



Caroline Islands 



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Christmas Is. 



4 Islands 


: Islands 




Malay Archipelago 
and Indonesia j 



New % 



\ a Tuamotu 
'Tahiti 1 Chain 



\ Tonga 


\.New Caledonia 



Juan Fernandez 

) New 


Chattiani Is. 

Strait of 

Tieira del 
Cape * f uego 

Island groups of the Pacific. 

Voyages of Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and Verrazano. 


Demarcation of the globe between Spain and Portugal—Atlantic. 





\,f New 

Demarcation of the globe between Spain and Portugal—Asia. 

Voyages of Dias, Da Gama, and Cabral. 

Arctic ocean 

A North 



ocean fi 



Sierra Leone 


South Br 
. iSAmerica 





South pacific 




jenUnawi j^ia-geltan, 151S-Z1 
Sebastian del cano, 15Z1-ZZ 
Francis ‘Drake, 1577-80 

Voyages of Magellan, del Cano, and Drake. 

Voyages of Mendana, Quiros, and Torres. 


-r = y Japan ' 


/ i V Philippine 


.» Islands 


V* ^Hawaiian 

+* £ 

% •-•v At,, 


•Nctv S’ «i \ 

Hetaide^i ✓ Fiji Islands \ Toh „» 

«*n \ \ a * , .'Tahiti ■..., dum 


-s ^— // 

-- - Mir. 1773 

m . 

-Oa-mos CookyJvS^vo^go, 17 €>8-1771 
m <Jam£scook? second voycugb, 1J7Z-17JS 
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- (cUrke. dtr 5 «-c ( 177^-2750,) 

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\/ Feb. 1774 

Voyages of Cook, Clerke, and Gore. 


Exploration of the 
Great South Sea 

Curiously, most histories of maritime exploration during the Age of 
Discovery tend to ignore European voyages into the Pacific following 
the sixteenth-century circumnavigations of Ferdinand Magellan and 
Sir Francis Drake. Or they skip directly from the achievement of 
those two navigators to the expeditions of James Cook, Fouis de 
Bougainville, and their successors in the latter third of the eighteenth 
century when, historians argue, the motives for exploration trans¬ 
formed from the single-minded search for gold and glory in the 
name of God to systematic investigation of new lands and new cul¬ 
tures in the name of science. One reason for this omission may be 
that scholars regard as insignificant the activities of European mari¬ 
ners prior to the well-planned, state-sponsored, “professional” expe¬ 
ditions organized between 1764 and 1800. For the earlier voyages 
into the Pacific were mostly inconclusive, little known, unsustained, 
unsystematic, and commanded more often by privateers and merchant- 
adventurers in search of plunder than by scientists and naval officers 
under royal commission. Another reason for neglect may be the 
sheer vastness of the subject, which befits the vastness of the 
Pacific Ocean itself. A third reason may be the simple matter of peri¬ 
odization, as historians struggle to divide the topic chronologically 
into manageable segments for easier comprehension, but without 
disrupting its natural continuity. 

A final reason for overlooking the Pacific may be that historians 
generally consider the Age of Discovery to have ended around the 
year 1600, or 1650 at the latest, and view whatever followed by way 
of exploration as a by-product of a subsequent Age of Empire. Yet 
regardless of their motives or objectives, because Spanish, English, 
Dutch, French, and, later, Russian navigators sailed repeatedly into 
the Great South Sea ever since Magellan’s Victoria limped back to 



Spain in 1522, locating new lands, encountering new peoples, and 
vastly expanding geographic knowledge of the world either by acci¬ 
dent or by design, Pacific exploration before 1800 is an essential part 
of the story of maritime discovery. Moreover, just like the search for 
an all-sea route to Asia via the south Atlantic or through Arctic 
waters across the top of the world, the exploration of the Pacific was 
not the work of a single individual or a single nation, but of Europe. 

Prior to 1519, however, the Pacific was an unknown, uncharted 
sea into which few human beings had ventured. To be sure, the 
island groups of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia had been set¬ 
tled in prehistoric times by people whose voyages in primitive boats 
over vast stretches of open water were remarkable. But these achieve¬ 
ments were isolated events and unknown to the wider world. Real 
exploration of the Pacific had to wait many centuries, therefore, until 
ships, navigation, and simple curiosity reached a state of develop¬ 
ment that emboldened men to sail out of sight of land during 
months at a time. For Pacific exploration was by necessity seaborne 
exploration. In the interim, the Asian inhabitants of the ocean’s west¬ 
ern rim showed no apparent interest in what lay beyond that great 
body of water’s eastern horizon, being content with their coastal and 
interisland trade from the shores of east Africa to the islands of 
Indonesia. The natives who lived along the Pacific coasts of the 
Americas displayed a similar lack of curiosity in the sea apart from 
fishing, and hence developed neither the vessels nor navigational 
skills necessary for long-distance voyaging. 

Exploration of the Pacific was thus left to mariners from 
Europe, but only after the preliminary voyages of discovery in the 
fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries had placed Europeans in the 
spice islands on the ocean’s Asian fringe and in the New World along 
its eastern rim. The initial surge for trans-Pacific exploration, led by 
Spain in its rivalry with Portugal to find and lay claim to the 
Moluccas, began of course with Magellan’s epic voyage of 1519. In 
the event, Portugal won the race for the spice islands, and thereafter 
focused its energies and resources on consolidating its maritime 
empire in the East. Magellan’s accidental discovery of the Philippines 
had nevertheless secured for Spain an important toehold in Asia, 
while the conquest of the Aztec and Inca Empires in the New World 
also extended Spanish power along the Pacific coasts of Central and 
South America. Soon after, the establishment of ports at Navidad and 
Acapulco in Mexico and at Payta and Callao in Peru provided facili¬ 
ties for further exploration of the South Sea, over which Balboa had 
claimed exclusive ownership for the Spanish Crown in 1513, along 
with all islands and contiguous territories. 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 


From the outset, Pacific exploration was driven by the usual 
search for gold, God, and glory, but with one additional lure: the 
widespread belief since ancient times in the existence of a great 
southern continent, originally called the Antipodes (opposite feet) by 
reason of its location at the bottom of the globe, in direct opposition 
to the known world. Ptolemy had speculated that the Indian Ocean 
was enclosed by just such a continent, which was joined to Africa 
and Asia. Other Greek writers had likewise conjectured that the 
southern hemisphere was broken by a continent and believed that 
present-day Sri Lanka possibly formed its northern tip. According to 
tradition, in this mysterious land were to be found the sources of the 
Nile River, which flowed beneath the earth’s surface under a zone of 
scorching hot tropical seas to emerge in Africa. In the early Middle 
Ages, Christian churchmen rejected the whole concept of the Antipo¬ 
des as being contrary to the revealed word of God, who did not 
make rain to fall upward, trees to grow downward or men to stand 
on their heads. 

But with the transmission of geographic learning from the Mus¬ 
lim world and the experience of late medieval travelers like Marco 
Polo, the idea of a southern continent was rehabilitated among 
Europe’s leading scholars until it became an article of faith. In con¬ 
temporary thinking, such a landmass centered on the South Pole was 
considered necessary for geographic symmetry, in order to counter¬ 
balance the continents in the northern hemisphere and prevent the 
earth from toppling over. Some Europeans also believed that the Anti¬ 
podes was the incredibly wealthy land of Orphir, visited according 
to biblical tradition by the servants of King Solomon. Still others 
thought it was the rich country of Beach (or Lucach) mentioned by 
Marco Polo. Consequently, on all surviving maps of the globe drawn 
after 1477, when the first printed world atlas—based on Ptolemy’s 
work—was published at the Italian port city of Bologna, a great 
southern continent was depicted in one form or another. At first, 
these maps reflected the Ptolemaic conception of a landlocked Indian 
Ocean until disproved by the voyages of Diaz, Da Gama, and 
Magellan. Even so, Europeans continued to believe in the existence 
of a southern continent, or Terra Australis Incognita as it was rela¬ 
beled after 1531, located somewhere in the unexplored regions of 
the South Pacific. 

Conviction was further reinforced by tantalizing reports brought 
back by several expeditions undertaken shortly after 1500. The 
Frenchman Binot Paulmyer claimed, for example, to have been 
blown ashore at “Gonneville Land” when a violent storm near the 
Cape of Good Hope had driven his vessel badly off course in January 



1504. But the country’s real identity remains a mystery for all of 
Paulmyer’s papers and the gifts he had received from the local inhab¬ 
itants that might have provided clues were lost to a pirate attack in 
the English Channel on his return voyage. The only surviving evi¬ 
dence for the expedition is a vague account that Paulmyer gave 
before the French naval authorities. Less dramatic, though more con¬ 
crete, was Magellan’s report of a land he called Tierra del Fuego, 
which lay on the south side of the strait named for him. The discov¬ 
ery of other islands in the South Pacific by Spanish navigators later 
in the century was seen as further evidence for the existence of a 
continent of which everyone was certain. That belief in what a mod¬ 
ern scholar has referred to as “one of the most tenacious fictions of 
history” would persist for another two hundred years before being 
demolished by the voyages of James Cook after 1768. 1 

Thus the major problem of the Pacific and its solution, writes 
historian J. C. Beaglehole, “is summed up in an attempt to find this 
Terra Australis incognita” into the late eighteenth century. 2 But as 
Beaglehole also observed, the difficulties involved in that search were 
greater even than those confronted by early explorers in the Atlantic. 
First were the physical dimensions of the great South Sea, starting 
with its sheer vastness (ten thousand miles in every direction), the 
small size of the islands scattered across its surface apart from the 
larger archipelagos located mostly on its western side, the unknown 
wind and ocean currents that had to be learned, as well as the sea¬ 
sonal changes on which successful navigation depended. Second 
were the nautical dimensions of Pacific exploration, not the least of 
which were the small size and limitations of European ships, their 
need to carry sufficient provisions for long-distance voyaging, the 
primitive techniques of contemporary navigation (including rudi¬ 
mentary charts and instruments that improved only slowly over 
time), the ever-present danger of scurvy, and the equally prevalent 
threat of mutiny. One major impediment to Pacific exploration in 
particular, and to maritime exploration in general, was the inability 
to determine longitude, in order to gauge how far a ship had sailed 
east and west, the best course to follow from one port to another, 
or the precise location of new found lands. Although latitude could 
be determined with reasonable accuracy, using techniques and 
instruments—such as the compass and cross-staff—that were avail¬ 
able since the beginning of the fifteenth century, not until the inven¬ 
tion of the chronometer by John Fiarrison in 1761 did Europeans 
have the kind of precision timepiece needed to calculate longitude. 3 

Such were the obstacles that faced anyone bold enough to ven¬ 
ture into the Pacific Ocean from the days of Magellan to James 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 


Cook, who enjoyed better maps, instruments, and ships than his 
sixteenth-century predecessor, to be sure, but for whom the prospect 
was no less daunting. Is it any wonder that before the invention and 
steady improvement of the compass, when distances were too great 
and geographic knowledge too limited to risk voyaging far from 
shore, that ancient and medieval men could only speculate on the 
existence of lands and continents south of the equator? Furthermore, 
if Portuguese seamen had trembled to go beyond Cape Bojador from 
fear of the unknown, if for similar reasons Columbus’s crew nearly 
mutinied after just two months’ sailing on the uncharted waters of 
the open Atlantic, one can only imagine how Magellan’s men felt 
after three months at sea, alone on the Pacific, with no land in sight 
and subsisting on meager rations of stale bread and putrid water, as 
their expectations of finding Asia “just over the horizon” from the 
New World crumbled into ruin. 

The Spanish Lake, 1525-1606 

By the mid-sixteenth century, the world was becoming a smaller 
and more familiar place. Europeans had sailed over most of the 
major oceans, and although much of what lay in the interior of the 
great continents remained a mystery for another three hundred years 
or more, at least their geographic outlines were being mapped with 
increasing precision by successive generations of maritime explorers 
and cartographers. Consequently, not only were the mass and general 
contours of Asia, Africa, and the Atlantic seaboard of the Americas 
charted with more or less accuracy, but Spain and Portugal (followed 
eventually by the English, French, and Dutch) had also established 
colonies in the Far East and the New World. Meanwhile, long¬ 
distance voyages across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good 
Elope to Asian ports had become almost routine, if still hazardous. 
Only the Pacific remained largely unknown, apart from portions of 
its perimeter. 

Coincidentally, most of that known perimeter was held by 
Spain, which also claimed exclusive navigation in the seas southwest 
of the Philippines, as far as Cape Elorn, by both right of ownership 
since 1513 and the old legal principle of “closed seas.” Hence, for all 
practical purposes the Pacific was viewed as a Spanish lake during 
most of the sixteenth century, and the Spanish Crown intended to 
keep it that way. By 1542, it claimed, or controlled directly, the 
whole west coast of the Americas from Cape Mendocino in present- 
day California to the Strait of Magellan, which was jealously guarded 



against foreign intrusion by Spanish warships. Across the Pacific, the 
Philippines served as Spain’s chief outpost in Asia, while at one point 
the royal authorities at Madrid even considered the conquest of 
China to secure their position. In time, claims to New Guinea and 
other islands discovered along the Pacific’s lower rim closed the 
Spanish circle. Only in the north, where English, Dutch, and French 
mariners were attempting to locate the mythic Strait of Anian 
through Arctic waters, was there a potential breach. As a final mea¬ 
sure, Spain issued and reissued a formal edict of prohibition against 
foreigners in this vast region of the globe five times between 1540 
and 1563. The whole conception of the Pacific as a closed Spanish 
lake was not the simple fantasy “of a people given to grandiose 
visions,” therefore; “in its essentials it actually was ... a realized 
fact.” 4 

For this reason, it was no accident that exploration of the great 
South Sea was begun by Spain during the sixteenth century as a natu¬ 
ral consequence of its claims to ownership. For however vital their 
contribution to contemporary knowledge of world geography or the 
various new cultures encountered along the way, these inaugural voy¬ 
ages were first and foremost acts of possession that affirmed Spain’s 
control over its growing maritime empire. Initially, however, the thrust 
behind this ambitious policy was far narrower in scope. The goal was 
to reach the islands discovered by Magellan along the same path he 
had used, in order to establish a permanent colonial outpost or trad¬ 
ing center there, and then to find a way back, though it took thirty 
years to work out a viable return passage. In the process, other islands 
were discovered en route. 5 Only later in the century did Spanish pol¬ 
icy expand to include a few voyages in the South Pacific to explore 
for new territories. But because of the unsolved riddle of longitude, 
much of what was discovered on these preliminary expeditions was 
charted so inaccurately that it was effectively lost and only “redis¬ 
covered” in the next century or two, when navigational techniques 
had improved. Ultimately, however, the point to remember is that 
Spain remained committed to the original purpose of Columbus’s voy¬ 
ages, which was to reach the East by sailing west. 

Between 1525 and 1559, four separate expeditions were author¬ 
ized by the Spanish authorities to cross the Pacific in Magellan’s 
wake. Significantly, only one departed from Spain; the other three 
embarked from New World ports founded on Mexico’s west coast. 
The first expedition sailed from the Spanish harbor of Corunna in 
1525 under command of Garcia Jofre de Loyasa. Also on board was 
Juan Sebastian del Cano, who had served under Magellan. Retracing 
the late explorer’s route across the Pacific, only one of the four ships 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 


reached the Philippines after a two-year voyage from Europe, during 
which Loyasa and Del Cano both died of scurvy. In the meantime, 
Hernan Cortes, now captain-general of New Spain, organized an 
expedition of his own under Alvaro de Saavedra (d. 1529). Two of 
the three vessels that sailed from Zacatula, Mexico, in October 1527, 
were lost at sea. Yet Saavedra reached the Philippines, and although 
his voyage was otherwise undistinguished, by pure coincidence he 
had sailed in the right latitude of ocean at the correct season 
(November-January) to catch the trade winds that were essential for 
a successful westward passage north of the equator. 6 The problem 
now was to find a viable return route to Central America. 

Not until 1542 was a second expedition sent across the Pacific 
from Mexico to explore commercial possibilities between China and 
the Philippines. Commanded by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos (who 
named “las Felipinas” after Emperor Charles V’s son and future heir, 
King Philip II of Spain), one of his ships also reached New Guinea, 
which the Portuguese might have visited as early as 1526. The first 
real attempt to occupy the Philippines was delayed until 1564-1565, 
however, when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi (ca. 1510-1572) left New 
Spain with a squadron of four ships for that purpose. On the island 
of Cebu, Magellan’s initial landfall in the archipelago, Legazpi made 
peace with the local natives after some skirmishing. Then in accord¬ 
ance with his instructions, he sent two ships in search of a return 
route across the Pacific. Sailing northward, the vessels encountered 
easterly winds near Japan that blew them along a great semicircular 
path back to New Spain. That four-month-long voyage pioneered the 
track that soon became the regular course of the famous Manila gal¬ 
leons, which began to trade in Chinese silks and porcelains for 
American silver in 1571. For almost two centuries, the annual pas¬ 
sage between Manila and Acapulco was the world’s longest unbroken 
trade route, which Spain endeavored to protect by cloaking the 
Pacific in such secrecy that no European rival could learn of its com¬ 
mercial networks or the galleons’ rich cargoes. 7 

With the Spanish conquest of Peru and Chile, meanwhile, addi¬ 
tional ports were established in the 1540s and 1550s at Calla, 
Santiago, Valparaiso, Concepcion, and Valdivia, all of which offered 
opportunities to explore Pacific waters south of the equator. Initial 
voyages offshore located the Galapagos Islands belonging to modern- 
day Ecuador and, farther south, the Juan Fernandez group. More 
ambitious plans soon followed to investigate the vast unknown 
region of the Pacific directly westward from South America, and to 
search for the Great Southern Continent that contemporaries 
believed to exist. The first of these expeditions sailed in 1567-1569 



under Alvaro de Mendana (1541-1595), whose route took him to 
the Solomon Islands deep within Melanesia. On his return voyage, 
he followed a course north of Hawaii and then eastward to the 
California coast, Acapulco and Callao. But so inaccurate was his 
estimate of the Solomons’ geographic position because of problems 
inherent in contemporary navigation, that he failed to relocate the 
islands on his second expedition to the region in 1595-1596. 
Mendana nevertheless discovered several small islands belonging to a 
group he named the Marquesas in honor of the viceroy of Peru, 
which made him the first European to encounter the land, people, 
and culture of a major Polynesian chain. 8 But his subsequent plan to 
found a colony on the island of Santa Cruz in the Melanesian archi¬ 
pelago collapsed when he died of malaria. Command now fell to 
Mendana’s chief pilot, Pedro Fernandez de Quiros (1565-1614), who 
took the expedition north to the Philippines and then back across 
the Pacific to Acapulco. 

Nine years later, in 1605, Quiros was given three ships of his 
own with instructions to locate the Great Southern Continent. He 
found instead numerous island groups, including parts of modern- 
day Samoa, the Cook Islands, the New Hebrides, and possibly Tahiti, 
though no real evidence supports the latter claim. One of his lieuten¬ 
ants, Luis Vaez de Torres (d. 1613?), also explored the coast of New 
Guinea and entered the strait now named for him that separates the 
island from northern Australia. Convinced on the basis of these find¬ 
ings that he had stumbled upon territories belonging to the conti¬ 
nent for which he sought, in May 1606 on the island of Maniculo in 
the New Hebrides, Quiros reaffirmed Spain’s possession of all lands 
lying to the south. Though his “discovery” of the Terra Australis was 
founded upon false premises, Quiros’s many landfalls not only rein¬ 
forced prevailing conviction that the continent remained to be 
located but also influenced Pacific exploration well into the eigh¬ 
teenth century. 

Quiros’s voyage of 1605-1606 concluded a remarkable series of 
Spanish explorations in the Pacific. Hampered thereafter by dwin¬ 
dling resources, Spain adopted a defensive policy aimed at excluding 
all foreign intrusion into the great South Sea, still regarded as a 
Spanish lake. Nevertheless, during the eighty years or so following 
Magellan’s initial voyage of circumnavigation, the contours of Spain’s 
Pacific empire were clearly visible, not just north and south from the 
California coast to the Strait of Magellan, but also east and west from 
the shores of Mexico and Peru to New Guinea and the Philippines. 
Although successive discoveries had not located the Great Southern 
Continent or produced quantities of gold, silver, or spices as many 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 


had hoped, Spanish galleons had begun to trade in Asian goods 
between Manila and Acapulco. Moreover, “through diplomatic treaty 
and papal bull, buttressed by exploration, conquest and settlement, 
Spain claimed an ocean whose lands and waters covered one-third of 
the surface of the globe.” 9 But that claim was soon challenged. 

English Privateers and Dutch Profiteers, 1574 1644 

Despite every effort to maintain secrecy, the Spaniards could 
not prevent word of their activities in the Pacific from leaking to 
European rivals. At the same time, the wealth generated for Spain 
from its overseas possessions especially in the New World had 
become the envy of many European courts, where alarm was also 
growing at the increase in Spanish power on land and sea that this 
wealth afforded. Adding to these concerns was the volatile interna¬ 
tional situation created in part by the ongoing Reformation, which 
pitted Catholic Spain against the Protestant states of western Europe. 
Particularly troublesome in this respect were Spain’s deteriorating 
relations not just with England since the accession of Elizabeth I to 
the Tudor throne in 1558, but with its own Calvinist Dutch subjects, 
whose revolt against Spanish rule—begun in 1566—became an 
eighty-year-long war for Netherlands’ independence. 

In fact, as early as the 1560s and 1570s, when England and 
Spain were still at peace though relations between them were grow¬ 
ing tense, many prominent Englishmen turned their attention toward 
the great South Sea. All were keen to curtail Spanish power and to 
expand England’s trade at the same time. But while some of these 
men urged Elizabeth I to take aggressive action against Spain’s 
empire overseas, others proposed a more peaceful policy of explora¬ 
tion in the lower extremities of South America not yet colonized by 
Spain, in conjunction with a search for new lands in the Pacific 
south of the equator. For the moment, however, both appeals fell on 
deaf royal ears. Although the cautious queen frequently turned a 
blind eye to the unofficial exploits of English privateers who plun¬ 
dered Spanish shipping in the Caribbean, she rejected any plan that 
might risk open war with Spain or commit the Tudor Crown’s scant 
resources to voyages of speculation. Besides, there was still hope that 
Martin Frobisher’s current search for the Strait of Anian in Arctic 
waters would at last discover a northwest passage to China. 

By 1577, however, Elizabeth appears to have changed her mind, 
when she consented to a privately organized expedition of five ships 
under the command of Francis Drake (ca. 1540-1596). Allegedly 


intended to explore the southern coasts of South America on both 
the Atlantic and Pacific sides, the undertaking’s real purpose was to 
raid Spanish shipping and colonies in the New World. The expedi¬ 
tion was kept strictly secret, therefore. And although the English 
queen might have invested personally in the venture, Drake carried 
no royal commission and commanded no royal ships. Consequently, 
when he embarked from Plymouth in November 1577, his fleet 
sailed without official recognition. 

Despite an unusually easy passage through the Strait of Magellan, 
by the time Drake reached his first rendezvous point on the coast of 
Chile a year after leaving England, only his flagship Golden Hinde 
remained of the five vessels that had sailed from Plymouth under his 
orders. Two had been lost even before entering the strait, while a third 
had disappeared and a fourth had returned to England after their sep¬ 
aration from Drake’s flagship in a severe storm they had encountered 
on entering the Pacific. The same tempest had blown the Golden Hinde 
southward, past the western entrance to the Strait of Magellan and 
into an unknown archipelago of islands near the tip of Tierra del 
Fuego. This incident resulted in the only significant discovery of 
Drake’s voyage, for it indicated that the south shore of the strait was 
not the northern rim of a great landmass as Magellan and others had 
supposed, though this did nothing to discourage contemporary belief 
in the existence of the Great Southern Continent. 

Heading north, Drake preyed upon Spanish settlements along 
the Pacific coast of South America and captured all the ships he 
could find, including one vessel laden with twenty-six tons of silver 
and two others carrying Chinese silks and porcelains that had been 
off-loaded from the Manila galleon. Drake also took care to seize 
Spanish pilots, charts, and other navigational aids that revealed, 
among other geographic features, the transoceanic trade route to the 
Philippines. The captured charts proved immediately useful, for with 
the Spanish authorities on guard up and down the coasts of South 
America, any hope of returning to England through the Strait of 
Magellan evaporated. Instead, Drake sailed northward beyond the 
limits of Spanish territory to the vicinity of present-day San 
Francisco, hoping to locate the entrance of a northwest passage from 
the Pacific side. Prevented by shoals and storms from proceeding 
any farther in that direction, Drake turned westward in July 1579 
from the coast of California (which he claimed for England as New 
Albion) and struck out across the Pacific, setting his course for the 
Moluccas. Sixty-eight days later he made his first landfall. Then, after 
trading for cloves on the island of Ternate, he began the six-month 
return voyage to England via the Cape of Good Hope. The Golden 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 


Hinde finally anchored at Plymouth in September 1580, its hold 
laden with captured Spanish treasure. 

Drake was knighted for his exploit, which the Spaniards 
denounced as an act of piracy. But what his circumnavigation really 
demonstrated was that English interests focused far more on East 
Indies markets than on exploration of the great South Sea. This focus 
was confirmed by four subsequent voyages under Edward Fenton 
(1582), Thomas Cavendish (1587-1589, 1591), and Richard Haw¬ 
kins (1593-1594). Except for Cavendish’s first expedition, however, 
none succeeded even in sailing through the Strait of Magellan, while 
Hawkins’s voyage ended disastrously with his capture by the Span¬ 
iards. Following the incorporation of the English East India Com¬ 
pany in 1600, England turned away from the Pacific for the next 
160 years, as it concentrated on developing its commerce in mari¬ 
time Asia via the Cape of Good Hope. And although the voyages of 
Drake and Cavendish had provided the English with firsthand infor¬ 
mation about Spanish commercial routes in the Pacific, of the region 
as a whole there was still little grasp. The emphasis, writes Glyndwr 
Williams, continued to he on the margins, while “the vast spaces of 
Oceania remained a void and attracted little attention.” 10 

Some of that void was soon filled, however, by Dutch navigators 
who began to explore the Pacific’s western fringe under orders from 
the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), or United East India 
Company, founded in 1602. Like their English contemporaries, 
Dutch interest focused on the East Indies trade, which became part 
of their larger struggle for independence from Spanish rule. Even 
before the rebellion began against their Catholic king, Philip II, the 
Calvinist Dutch had enjoyed a lucrative commerce in Asian goods 
with Lisbon. But this commerce ceased in 1580, when Portugal 
became part of the Spanish empire through dynastic inheritance. A 
year later, the newly created United Provinces of the Netherlands 
declared their formal independence from Spain, though the reality 
was not achieved until 1648. In the meantime, the Dutch waged an 
aggressive war against the Iberian kingdoms, which included attacks 
on their possessions overseas, especially in Asia. 

Hitherto, Dutch exploration had concentrated on finding a 
northwest or northeast passage to the Far East, though just like the 
Arctic voyages of England and France, their efforts in both directions 
had failed. Also unsuccessful due to heavy costs and casualties were 
two separate expeditions that sailed in 1598 for Asia via the Strait of 
Magellan. From these setbacks the Dutch had learned two lessons: 
first, that the surest route to the Indies lay around the Cape of Good 
Hope; and second, that success in the Asian trade required a national 


effort instead of private enterprise, which had funded Dutch voyages 
prior to 1602. In that year, consequently, the VOC was created from 
a number of small syndicates joined into one large joint stock com¬ 
pany, which was granted a monopoly charter with full powers to 
make war, conclude peace, and negotiate commercial agreements 
from the Cape of Good Hope to the Strait of Magellan. 

Trade, therefore, not discovery was the VOC’s objective. But the 
company’s business interests did lead to exploration as part of 
the search for new commodities and markets. In both respects, the 
Dutch held several advantages, starting with their complete ruthless¬ 
ness against any European or Asian rival. Dutch expansion was fur¬ 
ther aided by the conclusion of a Twelve Years’ Truce (1609-1621) 
with Spain, which briefly interrupted the fighting in Europe but not 
overseas, where the recent treaty stipulated noninterference with 
Dutch trade. Thereafter, the Dutch maritime empire in Asia 
expanded rapidly. The Portuguese were driven from many of their 
trading posts on Africa’s west coast, Sri Lanka, and the Moluccas by 
VOC forces, which also ejected the English from their toehold in the 
spice islands in 1625. At the same time, the company set up factories 
in India and elsewhere, while establishing outposts on St. Helena in 
the south Atlantic, at the Cape of Good Hope, and on Mauritius 
in the Indian Ocean to supply voyages to and from the Far East. In 
1619, Batavia (modern-day Jakarta), the VOC’s Asian headquarters, 
was founded on the island of Java, which allowed the company to 
dominate the Sunda Strait and Indonesia with ease, while the cap¬ 
ture of Malacca in 1641 also brought control over the strategic sea 
lane between east and west Asia. This activity was aided by the dis¬ 
covery in 1611 of a shorter route to Java. In place of the usual 
course from the Cape of Good Hope northward along the African 
coast and across to India, which depended upon the seasonal 
rhythm of the southwest monsoon, Dutch ships sailed directly east¬ 
ward from the Cape using westerly winds that always blew. This 
reduced their travel time by half. 

The new route also led them directly to Australia, which the 
Dutch first encountered in 1605 when the VOC sent William Jansz 
(1570-?) to investigate commercial opportunities along the south 
coast of New Guinea. Embarking from the port of Bantam on Java, 
Jansz sailed as far as the strait named after Luis de Torres (who 
explored it the following year) and then crossed to the west coast of 
Cape York Peninsula at Australia’s northern extremity. From there 
Jansz followed the shoreline southward to Cape Keer-Weer (Turn 
Again), before returning to Java in 1606. Doubtless because of his 
unfavorable report of the island-continent’s arid and inhospitable 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 


coast, almost a decade passed before VOC interest reawakened in 
this newly discovered “Southland,” later renamed New Holland. 
Beginning in 1616, several expeditions were sent to probe Australia’s 
western shores from Cape York in the northeast to Cape Leeuwin, 
the Great Australian Bight, and Tasmania in the south. All sailed 
with the same threefold purpose: to learn whether Southland or its 
adjacent regions were inhabited; to seek out new possibilities for 
trade; and to map the unexplored coasts for the greater safety of 
Dutch navigation. In the process, much of the treacherous shoreline 
of western Australia was charted by Dirck Hartog (1616), Frederick 
de Houtman (1619), Jan Carstenz (1623), Francois Thijssen (1627), 
and other merchant-captains of the VOC, who added new pieces to 
Dutch charts with each successive voyage. Little by little, their efforts 
traced the outline of an actual Southland, which was clearly exten¬ 
sive, even if it showed little evidence of riches or civilization. But 
whether this land was the Great Southern Continent that geogra¬ 
phers dreamed of had yet to be determined. 

In the meantime, the Dutch had not given up entirely on the 
trans-Pacific passage to Asia. On the contrary, three expeditions 
embarked independently from the United Provinces with the inten¬ 
tion of taking that course. The first, a fleet of six ships under Admi¬ 
ral Joris Spilbergen, departed in August 1614 with instructions from 
the VOC to sail for the Moluccas via South America and the Strait of 
Magellan. Its purpose was not peaceful exploration of the great 
South Sea, however. Like Francis Drake’s circumnavigation forty 
years before, Spilbergen’s mission was to prey upon Spain’s posses¬ 
sions in the New World and afterward to defend Dutch outposts in 
Asia against Portuguese attack. Hence, no discoveries were made 
during his two-year voyage. How different was the second expedition 
equipped in June 1614 by Isaac Le Maire and Willem Schouten (ca. 
1567-1625) who, like other private Amsterdam merchants, bitterly 
resented the VOC’s trade monopoly in Asia and sought to evade it 
by entering the Pacific from the east. 

Having formed an independent Southern Company and 
obtained permission from the Dutch government to trade in the Far 
East, Le Maire and Schouten still faced the problem that the Strait of 
Magellan fell under the VOC’s monopoly. Aware, however, of grow¬ 
ing doubts in Europe—stirred partly by Drake’s report of having 
been blown around the tip of South America—that Tierra del Fuego 
was part of another continent, both men believed that to the south 
of the strait could be found a second passage into the Pacific that lay 
outside the limits of VOC control. For that purpose, the new com¬ 
pany outfitted two ships, the first commanded by Le Maire’s son 



Jacob (ca. 1585-1616), and the second by Willem Schouten and his 
brother Jan. Though one of the vessels accidentally burned while 
under repair along the Patagonian coast, its stores and crew were 
simply transferred aboard the remaining ship, the Eendracht , which 
continued its voyage southward, past the entrance of the Strait of 
Magellan and along the shore of Tierra del Fuego. 

In late January 1616, the expedition discovered Staten Land, 
the Barnevelt Islands, and the southernmost point of South America, 
which was dubbed Cape Horn in honor of the Dutch port from 
which it had embarked. The Eendracht then sailed through the Strait 
of Le Maire (named for Isaac) between the Cape and the Barnevelt 
Islands, thus finding a new passage into the Pacific which also con¬ 
firmed that Tierra del Fuego was not part of a larger continent to the 
south. Taking a northwesterly course, the expedition next sighted 
Juan Fernandez Island in March and a month later arrived at the 
Tuamotus chain, where the ship took on fresh food and water despite 
some conflict with the local natives. Continuing west and a little 
south, the Eendracht reached the Tonga archipelago, the Hoorne 
Islands, traced the western fringe of Melanesia up to the northern 
coast of New Guinea (where the Schouten Islands were named for 
Willem), and landed at Ternate. 

The ship finally anchored at Batavia in mid-October 1616, sev¬ 
enteen months after leaving Europe. It is testimony to the excellent 
conditions aboard the Eendracht during the voyage that of eighty- 
seven crewmen, only three had died (including Jan Schouten), none 
from scurvy. Otherwise, the expedition actually discovered little of 
importance in the Pacific. Many of the island groups encountered 
had been found previously by Spanish explorers, only to be “lost” 
again because of problems with contemporary navigation. Certainly, 
the Great Southern Continent was not located, which was one of the 
expedition’s chief goals. Had they succeeded, Le Maire and Schouten 
might have enjoyed a warmer reception at Batavia by the VOC 
authorities, who not only doubted their discovery of a second strait 
into the Pacific, but also charged them with violating the company’s 
trade monopoly. As a result, the Eendracht was seized and both men 
were sent back to Europe under virtual arrest. Just seven years later, 
however, the two men were vindicated when a third expedition of 
eleven warships under Admiral Jacob l’Hermite embarked from the 
United Provinces in late April 1623. Its instructions were to sail 
around Tierra del Fuego via the Strait of Le Maire, whose existence 
was no longer disputed, and to attack Spanish ports along the coasts 
of Peru before crossing the Pacific to Asia. Otherwise, this third voy¬ 
age contributed nothing to the story of maritime discovery. 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 


Dutch interest in Pacific exploration languished until 1636, 
when it acquired new vision and new vigor under Anthony van 
Diemen (d. 1645), the VOC’s new governor-general at Batavia. A 
man of exceptional ability, van Diemen planned the final and most 
ambitious Dutch voyages of the century. In fact, within three months 
of his appointment, the governor-general authorized an expedition to 
explore in detail the entire west coast of Australia. Although long 
sections of this shoreline had been investigated by previous voyages, 
Dutch knowledge of Southland’s coastal geography was incomplete, 
while efforts to push beyond the limits of their earlier discoveries in 
the region might also reveal more islands, archipelagos, seas, or 
straits as yet unknown. For these purposes, the expedition of 1636 
was to begin in the north at Cape York Peninsula, which the Dutch 
still believed was part of New Guinea, and continue southward past 
Cape Leeuwin and into the Great Australian Bight as far as the 
islands of St. Francis and St. Peter. The voyage ended prematurely, 
however, when its commander was killed by natives on New Guinea 
and his vessels returned to Batavia. A second expedition launched in 
1639 met with equal failure. This time, Van Diemen sent two ships 
northward to investigate Spanish reports of gold-producing islands 
east of Japan, as well as to probe the coasts of Korea and neighbor¬ 
ing “Tartaria” (China). But after five months of fruitless effort, the 
storm-tossed and scurvy-ridden vessels returned to Java, having 
achieved few of their goals. 

Undeterred by these setbacks, van Diemen authorized two more 
expeditions between 1642 and 1644, both of which he entrusted to 
Abel Janszoon Tasman (ca. 1603-1659), an able navigator and expe¬ 
rienced explorer who had proved his worth on previous voyages. His 
instructions on the first expedition were to investigate the 
“remaining unknown part of the terrestrial globe” located somewhere 
in the same latitude as Chile and Peru and additionally to survey 
unexplored portions of New Holland (formerly Southland) as far as 
the Solomon Islands. 11 In August 1642, Tasman’s two ships sailed 
from Batavia to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and then struck east¬ 
ward toward Australia in latitude 44° S, beneath the island-continent. 
In November, he sighted a coast he named Anthony Van Diemen’s 
Land (modern-day Tasmania) after the governor-general. Continuing 
east, he next encountered the southern island of New Zealand, 
whose shores Tasman followed northward in search of a passage into 
the South Sea. Finding none (he missed the opening of Cook Strait), 
from northern New Zealand he crossed the open sea to Tonga on his 
return voyage to Batavia via Fiji, the Solomon chain, and New 



In addition to his discovery of New Zealand, Tasman had 
unknowingly circumnavigated Australia which, had he realized it, 
might have ended all speculation about the existence of a southern 
continent. But the VOC authorities on Java, including Governor- 
General van Diemen, were unimpressed by his accomplishment. In 
their eyes, he had discovered nothing of value; even so, he was dis¬ 
patched a second time in February 1644 with three ships to investi¬ 
gate the possibility of a strait between New Holland and New 
Guinea, and to determine whether the Gulf of Carpentaria in north¬ 
ern Australia was actually the opening of a passage that divided Cape 
York Peninsula from the rest of Southland. If so, he was to sail 
through it to see if Anthony Van Diemen’s Land was a separate island 
or the southernmost extremity of New Guinea. But when Tasman 
found no strait, he returned to Batavia at the end of the sailing sea¬ 
son. To the VOC, this expedition was no more successful than its 
predecessor had been. 

When van Diemen died a year later, Dutch exploration in the 
Pacific died with him. The VOC never returned to New Zealand; nei¬ 
ther did it show any further interest in Australia, whose coasts were 
not fully mapped until 1801-1803. The company’s refusal to engage 
any longer in voyages of discovery was a purely business decision. 
Exploration was unprofitable; moreover, because exploration was 
always subordinate to the VOC’s commercial interests, it was expend¬ 
able when there was no return on investment. Unlike the Spaniards, 
however, the Dutch shared their discoveries with the rest of Europe 
in the certainty that the new information offered little prospect of 
immediate commercial advantage to their trading rivals. Neverthe¬ 
less, by building upon the earlier work of Spanish and Portuguese 
navigators, Dutch voyages in Pacific waters between 1600 and 1644 
had added considerably to geographic knowledge of the East Indies, 
which were charted with ever greater precision. They had also 
explored half the coast of New Guinea and nearly three sides of 
Australia, found a new strait in the great South Sea at the island- 
continent’s southeastern tip, and discovered New Zealand. 12 Yet 
much more remained to be done. 

The Fallow Years, 1644 1764 

During the 120 years that followed Tasman’s last voyage, 
European attention to Pacific exploration was distracted by continen¬ 
tal affairs as the leading naval and colonial powers fought each other 
in a long succession of conflicts that were waged increasingly on a 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 


global scale, to be sure, but which preoccupied England, France, 
Spain, and the United Provinces, and consumed their resources. Con¬ 
sequently, not until the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 brought a 
lengthier period of European peace could these contenders redirect 
their energies to Pacific exploration once again. In the interval, how¬ 
ever, not all activity had ceased in the great South Sea. Some progress 
was made in the work of discovery, particularly by three men from 
very different walks of life: William Dampier (ca. 1652-1715), Jacob 
Roggeveen (1659-1729), and Vitus Bering (1681-1741). 

Born in England, Dampier went to sea at the age of sixteen, 
served in the Royal Navy against the Dutch, and settled in the West 
Indies in the early 1670s. Perhaps bored with private life or eager for 
quick riches, in 1679 he joined a party of buccaneers with whom he 
crossed the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific, where he signed 
aboard the Cygnet under Captain Shaw. After pillaging Spanish ships 
and settlements along the west coast of South America in the com¬ 
pany of other privateers, in 1686 the Cygnet crossed the Pacific from 
Mexico to Guam and cruised the waters around the Philippines in 
search of other Spanish prizes. The ship then headed southward 
toward the spice islands, there to prey upon the Dutch. In January 
1688, the Cygnet touched upon the northwest coast of New Holland, 
making it the first English vessel to reach Australia, where the crew 
spent five weeks exploring the shoreline. 

By 1691 Dampier was back in England, having circumnavigated 
the globe. Seven years later, he published an account of his adven¬ 
tures, A New Voyage Round the World. An immediate best seller, the 
book was exceptional for the almost scientific scope and precision of 
Dampier’s observations. When combined, moreover, with a summary 
of Tasman’s voyages printed in English in 1694, Dampier’s work reig¬ 
nited interest in finding the Terra Australis Incognita. Specifically for 
that purpose, the former buccaneer was commissioned by the Royal 
Navy to lead a government-sponsored expedition in 1699. In com¬ 
mand of the Roebuck, Dampier had planned to reach the east coast 
of New Holland via Cape Horn, but severe storms forced him to go 
by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Finally making landfall at Shark 
Bay, he traced the Australian coastline northeast for several weeks 
until changing course for Timor and New Guinea, which, he discov¬ 
ered, was separate from the island of New Britain by a strait later 
named for him. After stopping briefly at Batavia for some badly 
needed repairs to his ship, Dampier began the long return voyage to 
England. The Roebuck became so unseaworthy en route, however, 
that he abandoned it at Ascension in the south Atlantic and reached 
home in 1701 aboard an English naval vessel. 



Dampier ventured twice more into the great South Sea before 
his death. In 1703-1705, at the beginning of a new European war 
over the Spanish succession, he commanded a privateering expedi¬ 
tion to the Pacific coast of South America, for which he carried a 
naval commission, though the voyage was sponsored by a group of 
London merchants. In 1708-1711, he served as pilot aboard a sec¬ 
ond privateering expedition under Woodes Rogers, also outfitted by 
English merchants, to harry Spanish shipping in the South Pacific 
and East Indies. Because of the purpose for which they sailed, nei¬ 
ther expedition contributed to contemporary geographic knowledge 
of the great South Sea. In fact, the only point of interest common to 
both voyages was the rescue of Alexander Selkirk, a mutinous sea¬ 
man who had been marooned on Juan Fernandez Island in 1704 dur¬ 
ing the earlier of the two expeditions, only to be saved from his 
isolation in 1709 by the later one. 

William Dampier circumnavigated the globe four times. More 
significant still was the effect produced by his writings. Not only did 
A New Voyage Round the World (1697), A Discourse of Trade Winds 
(1699), and A Voyage to New Holland (1703) herald a scientific 
approach to the work of discovery that characterized the voyages of 
the late eighteenth century, but more immediately they stimulated 
renewed interest in Pacific exploration among his contemporaries. 
One response was commercial, and specifically the foundation of the 
South Sea Company (1711) that failed spectacularly when the 
famous South Sea Bubble burst in a frenzy of stock market specula¬ 
tion a decade later. A second response was political, as England, 
France, and other maritime powers challenged the monopolistic 
claims of Spain and the United Provinces to ownership of the Pacific, 
East Indies, and Australia in a series of wars also fought in European 
possessions overseas. A third response was literary, as Daniel Defoe, 
Jonathan Swift, and other writers drew upon the experience of con¬ 
temporary navigators for such novels as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe 
(1719), based upon the real-life adventures of Alexander Selkirk, 
and Captain Singleton (1720), and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). 
The latter two stories were set largely in Pacific or Asian waters. For 
all these reasons, wrote J. C. Beaglehole, the work of William 
Dampier was “fundamental to all future discovery.” 13 

Despite renewed interest, however, there were only two other Pa¬ 
cific voyages of any real significance in the first half of the eighteenth 
century. To be sure, the European naval powers continued to export 
continental conflicts to their colonial possessions overseas, which 
resulted, for example, in Commodore George Anson’s famous circum¬ 
navigation of 1741-1744 during the War of the Austrian Succession 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 


(1740-1748). But such expeditions contributed nothing to discovery; 
neither did the great trading companies, which were less concerned 
with exploration at this time than with defending their commercial 
monopolies from encroachment by outsiders. Jacob Roggeveen’s voy¬ 
age in 1721-1722 to search for the Great Southern Continent on 
behalf of the Dutch West India Company (est. 1621) was all the more 
exceptional, therefore, because it departed from prevailing patterns. 

Twice before, in 1696 and 1717, an expedition had been pro¬ 
posed for this purpose to the VOC, but the proposals had come to 
nothing. It was probably for this reason that Roggeveen, a former 
councilor in the VOC who had retired from service with a personal 
fortune, approached the Dutch West India Company with a new 
plan, inspired partly by the earlier explorations of Pedro Fernandez 
de Quiros, Abel Tasman, and William Dampier. The company, which 
held a commercial monopoly on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of 
the Americas, not only responded to the new project but also gave 
Roggeveen command of three ships, which sailed from the Dutch 
port of Texel in August 1721. 

After touching at the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic, the 
small fleet passed through the Strait of Le Maire beyond latitude 
60° S, in order to swing around Cape Horn more easily. From the evi¬ 
dence of icebergs, ocean currents, and flocks of birds along the way, 
Roggeveen was convinced that the Terra Australis existed and that 
it extended to the South Pole. Turning northward to Juan Fernandez 
Island, which he thought should be settled as a supply base for voy¬ 
ages from Europe by way of the Strait of Magellan, he continued his 
search for the southern continent. Instead, he discovered Easter Island 
in 1722, named for the day on which it was sighted. In addition to 
describing the friendliness of the local natives and their distinctive tat¬ 
toos, Roggeveen observed colossal stone figures that dotted the hill¬ 
sides near the shore. Leaving the island, he continued west to the 
Tuamotus chain and then northward above the Society Islands toward 
Java via Samoa, New Guinea, and the Moluccas. In late September 
1722, he anchored at Batavia, where the VOC authorities immediately 
impounded Roggeveen’s two ships on charges that he had violated the 
company’s monopoly. The explorer and his remaining crew were 
returned to the United Provinces under guard, having failed either to 
discover the Great Southern Continent or to prove its nonexistence. 

The only other important voyage during the first half of the 
eighteenth century was sponsored by Peter the Great (Tsar Peter I) 
of Russia, who authorized the first Kamchatka expedition (1725— 
1730) under Vitus Bering, a Danish captain serving in the imperial 
navy. The purpose was to explore Russian Siberia’s Pacific coast to 



determine whether it and modern-day Alaska were connected by 
land. As early as 1566 vague reports of a strait separating the two 
continents had been made, though several Russian expeditions as 
late as 1696 had passed the Bering Sea (as it was later called) to 
North America without sighting it. Eager to continue the exploration 
of Siberia and to establish an Arctic trade route to China and India, 
the tsar wanted to know if such a strait existed. 

In 1725, Bering crossed overland through Siberia to the mouth 
of the Kamchatka River, where he oversaw the construction of a 
small ship to investigate the Siberian coastline as far as the Gulf of 
Anadyr. Continuing northward, he sailed through the strait that now 
bears his name beyond the Arctic Circle, where heavy fog prevented 
him from sighting the Alaskan coast. Nonetheless convinced that 
there was no land connection to North America, Bering returned to 
Kamchatka. Not long after, he led a second, or Great Northern Expe¬ 
dition (1733-1740), of thirteen ships and six hundred men to con¬ 
tinue exploration of Siberia’s Arctic and Pacific coasts as far north as 
the Kuril Islands. As a by-product of that undertaking, in 1740-1741 
with two vessels, Bering turned east again, rounding the Kamchatka 
Peninsula to Avacha Bay, where his ships became separated. 

Now sailing alone, in mid-July the Danish explorer sighted 
Alaska and afterward investigated Kodiak Island, the Kenai 
Peninsula, and the Aleutian chain. In November, however, disaster 
struck when Bering’s ship ran aground. Over the next few weeks, as 
his crew constructed small boats from the wreckage to reach the 
Siberian mainland, scurvy set in and Bering died along with eighteen 
of his men. Yet his death had not been in vain, for his voyages had 
established definitively the existence of a strait between Asiatic 
Russia and the northeast extremity of North America, while contrib¬ 
uting substantially to contemporary geographic knowledge of the 
north Pacific, which had not been a focus of European attention 
hitherto. He had also paved the way for Russian settlement of the 
Aleutians and Alaska over the next century. 

Pacific Exploration in an Age of Science, 1764 1800 

With the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, and the advent 
of a longer period of peace than Europe had known since the mid¬ 
seventeenth century, the maritime powers were free once more to 
engage in voyages of exploration. In Great Britain and France espe¬ 
cially, there was a burst of renewed interest in the Pacific Ocean, as 
they redirected their ancient national rivalry into a race for the Terra 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 


Australis Incognita and whatever else they could find. Having lost to 
Britain much of its colonial empire in Canada, India, and the Carib¬ 
bean during the recent conflict, France was particularly eager to 
restore its damaged prestige and to establish a new French empire 
overseas. This ambition was enough by itself to reinvigorate Britain’s 
strategic interest in the great South Sea. 

Yet another key motive for both contenders developed from a 
rapid increase in scientific curiosity about the natural, physical world, 
and its different human cultures. This element of Pacific exploration 
was already evident in the Great Northern Expedition of Vitus Bering 
in 1733-1740, which was accompanied by a German naturalist from 
the Russian Academy of Science to study the flora and fauna of Siberia. 
But the role of science in Pacific exploration became especially 
prominent in the British, French, and Spanish voyages of the second 
half of the eighteenth century, sometimes as a pretext for discovery, 
yet more often as an integral aspect of these well-organized, state- 
sponsored expeditions. Perhaps Captain James Cook (1728-1779) cap¬ 
tured the union of science, exploration, and human curiosity best 
when he wrote in 1770 during his first Pacific voyage that although he 
had little hope of making any valuable discoveries, “nevertheless it 
must be allowed that the Sciences will receive some improvement 
therefrom, especially Navigation and Geography.” For despite the many 
vicissitudes that afflicted exploration in unknown regions of the world, 

Was it not for the pleasure which naturally results to a Man 
from being the first discoverer, even was it nothing more than 
sands and Shoals, this service would be insupportable especially 
in far distant parts, like [the Pacific], short of Provisions and 
almost every other necessary. The world will hardly admit of 
an excuse for a man leaving a Coast unexplored he has once 
discover’d . 14 

The renewal of European interest in the great South Sea was 
also aided, meanwhile, by major improvements in navigational tech¬ 
nique and ship design, which increased the chances for the success 
of lengthy voyages. In 1714, for example, the British government 
founded the Board of Longitude and, by Act of Parliament, offered a 
prize of £20,000 for a solution to this navigational problem. The 
resulting invention of precision instruments such as the sextant 
(1757), which allowed a more accurate determination of latitude; the 
chronometer (1761), which kept exact time; and improved com¬ 
passes, which were less susceptible to magnetic variation, helped to 
reveal the secret of longitude and permitted pilots to calculate a 
ships geographic position with precision. The gradual increase in 



size, carrying capacity, and maneuverability of oceangoing vessels, 
coupled with advances in hygiene to prevent disease and food supply 
to prevent scurvy, further allowed for healthier crews. These refine¬ 
ments enhanced the safety of ever-longer voyages, despite the still 
hazardous conditions encountered in unknown waters. With so 
many improvements in seafaring, by 1760 the moment had come to 
tackle the mysteries that remained in remote and hitherto unex¬ 
plored portions of the world’s great oceans, starting with the Pacific. 

Of these mysteries, the riddle of the Great Southern Continent 
was the most persistent, though even before the major Pacific voyages 
began after 1764, interest in locating this land of legend had steadily 
revived. Inspired, for example, by the publication in 1663 of a book 
that included Binot Paulmyer’s 1504 discovery of Gonneville Land, to¬ 
gether with the voyages of Dampier and Roggeveen, a Frenchman 
named Pierre Bouvet de Lozier sailed in 1739 in search of Paulmyer’s 
lost discovery, which he associated with the Terra Australis. All he 
sighted, however, was a headland far to the southwest of southern 
Africa. Finding no other evidence of Gonneville Land, Bouvet planned 
to continue east, past the Cape of Good Hope and then south of New 
Holland, before returning to France via Cape Horn. But when his crew 
refused to undertake such a long voyage, Bouvet was forced to sail 
home by the Atlantic route. Not until 1771 did another French navi¬ 
gator, Yves de Kerguelan-Tremaric, renew the search for Gonneville 
Land in the south Atlantic and the southern part of the Indian Ocean. 
But his only discovery was an uninhabitable island midway between 
Africa, Antarctica, and Australia now named for him. 

Despite these early setbacks, interest in locating the Terra 
Australis intensified by midcentury among amateur and professional 
geographers who were more convinced than ever of the continent’s 
existence. Particularly influential in this regard was the publication in 
1756 of the History of Navigation to the South Lands. This was a study 
of previous explorations into the world’s southern latitudes by French 
scholar Charles de Brasses (1709-1777), who had developed an inter¬ 
est in geography. Basing his conclusions upon Paulmyer’s account of 
Gonneville Land and other reports like it, De Brosses made the 
“scientific” argument—built partly upon the old medieval plea for 
geographic symmetry—that the legendary continent had to exist 
somewhere in the southern hemisphere to counterbalance the land- 
masses in the north. In the process of writing, De Brosses also coined 
the terms “Australasia” (in reference to the legendary continent) and 
“Polynesia” (in reference to the island groups of the South Pacific). 
Although not translated immediately, in 1766 the first volume of an 
English-language version appeared under a new title, Terra Australis 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 


Cognita, which its “author,” John Collander, claimed as his own work. 
Both books caught the interest of many English readers, but especially 
Collander’s appeal for Britain to acquire the Great Southern Continent 
and the vast resources it allegedly contained. 

Around the same time, Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808), a 
Scottish merchant and seafarer who had worked for the English East 
India Company, compiled a survey of discoveries made in the Pacific 
Ocean up to 1764. In the course of his reading on the subject, while 
still serving in India on company business, he had come across a 
hitherto unknown Spanish account of Luis Vaez de Torre’s 1607 voy¬ 
age through a strait between New Guinea and New Holland. This 
find slowly convinced Dalrymple that the southern continent existed, 
a conviction further reinforced by bits of evidence he collected from 
the reports of other voyages. Returning to England in 1765, 
two years later he published An Account of Discoveries in the South 
Pacifick Ocean previous to 1764. In what one modern scholar has called 
“a remarkable display of theorizing from little evidence,” the book 
asserted that portions of the Great South Land, which must extend 
5,323 miles from east to west and have a population of 50 million, 
had been “discovered” already, on the east side by Spanish explorer 
Juan Fernandez, in the west by Tasman, and elsewhere by others. 15 
It only remained to locate the intermediate parts. Not only did this 
argument find a large, sympathetic audience in Great Britain, here 
also “was the final spur to exploration in the South Pacific.” 16 

Yet even before Collander and Dalrymple published their works, 
in 1764 the British and French authorities had begun a new series of 
state-sponsored expeditions to the Pacific, performed by naval offi¬ 
cers under royal commission. The first of these voyages was that of 
veteran naval captain John Byron (1723-1786), aboard HMS Dolphin 
(1764-1766). His instructions were to discover unknown lands in 
the South Sea and, ultimately, to locate a strait to Hudson Bay and the 
Atlantic Ocean somewhere along North America’s Pacific coast in the 
region above Drake’s New Albion, or else return via the Cape of 
Good Hope. Touching first at the Falkland Islands, which he claimed 
for the British Crown, he rounded Cape Horn and sailed north to 
Juan Fernandez Island. At this point, Byron ignored his instructions 
to hunt for a Northwest Passage in the vicinity of California and 
headed northwest across the Pacific instead, passing above Samoa to¬ 
ward Guam and the Ladrones group before setting his course for 
home by way of Africa. The expedition was largely a failure, there¬ 
fore, as it had discovered little or nothing of value. 

In 1766-1768, the Dolphin set sail again, this time under Cap¬ 
tain Samuel Wallis (1728-1795), who had explicit orders to search 



for the Great Southern Continent. He was accompanied by a veteran 
of Byron’s expedition, Philip Carteret (d. 1796), aboard the Swallow. 
After passing through the Strait of Magellan, however, the two ships 
became separated and so continued their voyages alone. Prevented 
by bad weather from sailing for the high southern latitudes as 
instructed, Wallis changed course to the northwest and, during his 
voyage across the Pacific, discovered Tahiti, one of the most idyllic 
South Sea islands. Otherwise, he accomplished nothing of note. Nor 
did Carteret, who looked in vain for islands reputed to exist near the 
Juan Fernandez group. Finding no trace of them, he too struck out 
across the Pacific, discovering Pitcairn Island and the Admiralty 
Islands, and relocating the Santa Cruz group, which had been dis¬ 
covered (and subsequently lost again) in 1568 by Alvaro de 
Mendana. By this time, the Swallow’s condition was so rotten that 
Carteret only managed to reach home via the Cape of Good Hope 
with great difficulty. He also had found little of significance. So apart 
from making some small contributions to contemporary knowledge 
of Pacific geography, this second British expedition into the South 
Sea was no more successful than Byron’s had been. 

Neither was that commanded by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville 
(1729-1811), a French nobleman and naval officer who set sail for 
the Pacific aboard the frigate La Boudeuse in November 1766, just 
three months after Wallis had departed from England. With him also 
sailed two scientists to study the flora, fauna, geology, and native 
societies encountered during the voyage. Bougainville’s instructions 
were to proceed by the south Atlantic into the Pacific, and thence to 
the East Indies. Ultimately, his purpose was to find the Terra Aus¬ 
tralis. After passing through the Strait of Magellan with some diffi¬ 
culty, he began a fruitless search for the legendary landmass. But 
finding no trace of it, Bougainville set his course for Tahiti, which he 
immediately claimed for France despite the fact that Wallis had 
annexed the island to Great Britain only eight months before. 

From Tahiti, Bougainville sailed to Samoa and shortly after redis¬ 
covered the islands of Espiritu Santo first sighted in 1606 by Pedro 
Fernandez de Quiros. This group the French explorer promptly 
rechristened the Great Cyclades, which James Cook later renamed the 
New Hebrides. Bougainville then made for the east coast of Australia, 
but was prevented from approaching the shore by a line of shoals and 
reefs now named for him. He thus turned north into a maze of islands 
off the southeastern tip of New Guinea, which he dubbed the Louisi- 
ades in honor of King Louis XV, before continuing on to Batavia via 
the Solomons, New Britain, and finally, home around the Cape of 
Good Hope. He reached France in mid-March 1769. Like Byron, 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 


Wallis, and Carteret, Bougainville had rediscovered much but had 
found comparatively little that was either new or significant, though 
he returned from his voyage with more than three thousand new spe¬ 
cies of plants and animals. Moreover, to the distress of other mariners, 
his charts were so vague as to be of scant use, despite his own com¬ 
plaints about the complete ignorance of naval matters among “fine 
style writers,” who “take great care to cut back every detail that has to 
do with navigation and that could help to guide navigators” whenever 
editing sailors’ journals for publication. 1 / Hence, Bougainville’s circum¬ 
navigation met with only modest success, while belief in the Terra 
Australis persisted because no ship had yet sailed deeply enough into 
the South Pacific to prove or disprove its existence. 

By 1768, however, the British Admiralty was planning to do just 
that: to resolve the mystery of the Great Southern Continent once 
and for all by sending a carefully prepared expedition on a more 
southerly course in the Pacific than had been attempted hitherto. In 
order to conceal these plans from Britain’s maritime rivals, especially 
France, the Admiralty found a useful pretext for the voyage in a 
request from the Royal Society for aid in observing the Transit of 
Venus across the sun’s surface, which was predicted for 3 June 1769. 
This astronomical event was important to science for calculating the 
distance between the earth and the sun. As a subterfuge, it was also 
“heaven sent ... to allow [the British] to carry on a series of voyages 
designed to forestall the French in general and Bougainville in par¬ 
ticular.” 18 At first, the Admiralty considered giving command of the 
new expedition to Alexander Dalrymple. But when he demanded 
supreme authority over the venture, a role prohibited by Admiralty 
regulations, the choice fell upon James Cook, who would prove to 
be the greatest of all Pacific explorers. 

Publicly, Cook’s instructions were to proceed to Tahiti to record 
the Transit of Venus, but secretly he was ordered to continue his 
voyage in search of the Terra Australis. At the same time, he was to 
report in full upon any new lands discovered and to bring back 
specimens, drawings, surveys, and maps. To assist with that purpose, 
the expedition was to be accompanied by two astronomers, an artist, 
and the botanists Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), a wealthy and influ¬ 
ential gentleman naturalist, and Dr. Daniel Solander (1733-1782), a 
Swede who had studied under Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern 
botany. These specialists and all their scientific equipment were to 
sail with Cook aboard HMS Endeavour, a sturdy little collier refitted 
specifically for the journey. The pursuit of science would become an 
essential feature of all Cook’s voyages; indeed, his ships were in this 
respect floating laboratories. 



Cook left Plymouth on 26 August 1768 bound for the Pacific 
Ocean via Cape Horn. He reached Tahiti in April 1769, in plenty of 
time to prepare for the Transit of Venus. Like most early European 
visitors, the captain was overwhelmed by the friendliness of the 
islanders and surprised by their relaxed attitude toward life in gen¬ 
eral and sexual relations in particular—outlooks that were altogether 
different from the rigidly moralistic Christian viewpoint. But while 
very accepting of, and intrigued by, the Polynesian way of life, he 
never grew accustomed to the constant pilfering of tools, weapons, 
nails—in short, anything the natives could carry away—of which he 
complained constantly in his journals as the single greatest fault of 
these otherwise open, honest, and gentle people. For the rest, he was 
remarkably sensitive to their culture, in which he took a keen inter¬ 
est and that he described in meticulous detail. 

Its scientific observations on Tahiti completed, the Endeavour 
next sailed westward on 13 July to the Society Islands, which Cook 
discovered, charted, and named for the Royal Society, before turning 
southward in search of the Terra Australis in the latitudes where it 
allegedly lay. But finding no trace after weeks of sailing back and 
forth, during which his skepticism increased that the continent 
actually existed, Cook turned north again to New Zealand, which he 
discovered was composed of two islands divided by a strait later 
named for him. After circumnavigating the islands and charting their 
shores with remarkable precision, Cook sailed for the east coast of 
New Holland, and on 29 April 1770 entered Botany Bay, so-called 
for the number of specimens Banks and Solander collected there. 
Continuing up the coast of New South Wales into the Great Barrier 
Reef toward Cape York Peninsula, the Endeavour was almost lost, but 
for Cook’s resourcefulness, when it ran aground on the coral. After 
two months of repairs, the ship sailed for Batavia via the Torres Strait 
and then homeward around the Cape of Good Hope. It anchored at 
Plymouth on 13 July 1771. 

Although Cook had not located the Great Southern Continent 
as hoped, the logs, journals, charts, scientific specimens, drawings, 
and paintings that were collected during the expedition represented 
an exceptional record of a remarkable voyage. Moreover, the captain 
had fulfilled his instructions to the letter, even returning to England 
with a sound ship and a healthy crew free from the ravages of scurvy. 
This was only a beginning, however, for Cook made two further voy¬ 
ages into the Pacific, one in 1772-1775 that conclusively disproved 
the existence of the Terra Australis, and the other in 1776-1779 to 
continue the search for a Northwest Passage in the vicinity of the 
Bering Strait. In the process, he discovered much and sailed farther 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 

into the South Pacific than anyone had done before, crossing the 
Antarctic Circle three times in search of the legendary continent. 
Finally concluding in January 1775 that the “extensive coast, laid 
down in Mr. Dalrymple’s Chart of the Ocean between Africa and 
America, and the Gulf of St. Sebastian does not exist,” he neverthe¬ 
less speculated from the evidence of ice floes, currents, and climatic 
conditions “that there is a tract of land near the [South] Pole ... , a 
land of some considerable extent ... that (supposing there is one) 
must lay within the Polar Circle”—in a word, Antarctica. 19 

In addition to giving Europeans their first accurate geographic 
picture of the South Pacific in all its vastness, during his three voy¬ 
ages Cook also relocated the Marquesas, which had not been sighted 
since Alvaro de Mendana’s second voyage in 1595, explored the New 
Hebrides and New Caledonia, surveyed large portions of the virtually 
unknown north Pacific from modern-day British Columbia through 
the Bering Strait, and stumbled upon Christmas Island and the 
Hawaiian chain (which he named the Sandwich Islands). There he 
was killed in 1779 during a quarrel with the natives over a stolen 
ships boat. Finally, he had conquered scurvy through his care and 
attention to nutrition aboard ship, by laying in a good store of 
antiscorbutics such as citrus fruit, raisins, and sauerkraut (which 
disgusted his crews), or using local remedies like tea brewed from 
tree bark when low on fresh provisions. As he acknowledged with 
some pride in December 1778, during his final expedition: 

Few men have introduced into their Ships more novelties in the 
way of victuals and drink than I have done; indeed few men 
have had the same opportunity or been driven to the same 
necessity. It has however in a great measure been owing to such 
little innovations that I have always kept my people generally 
speaking free from that dreadful distemper, the Scurvy . 20 

For this achievement, Cook was elected a Fellow of the Royal Soci¬ 
ety in 1776 and awarded its prestigious Copley Medal for outstand¬ 
ing contributions to science. 

Little remained to be done in the Pacific after Cook’s three voy¬ 
ages, which had helped “to throw that ocean open to the world.” 21 
Thereafter, his successors had only to supply missing details on the 
map. One of these men was French naval captain Jean de la Perouse 
(1741-1788?), a great admirer of Cook who tried to match his 
accomplishments. Dispatched on a voyage to the Pacific in 1785, 
La Perouse rounded Cape Horn en route to Easter Island, Hawaii, 
and Alaska. He then headed south again to Monterey, California, and 
across the Pacific to the northeast coast of Asia, which he explored 



from Sakhalin Island to Kamchatka. Returning southward to Samoa, 
La Perouse next sailed to the English colony at Port Jackson near 
Botany Bay in January 1786, where he entrusted the governor with 
journals and letters for France and also took on fresh provisions 
before setting course for the Santa Cruz Islands. Neither La Perouse 
nor his two ships were heard from again. Nevertheless, his expedi¬ 
tion remains one of the more extraordinary Pacific voyages of the 
late eighteenth century, while La Perouse, like Bougainville, is among 
the few explorers who compares favorably with James Cook. 

Shortly after, French admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux (1737-1793) 
took command of an expedition to search for his missing countryman. 
He had additional instructions to conduct a thorough survey of the 
Australian coast, Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and New Caledonia. 
Finding no trace of La Perouse, d’Entrecasteaux not only carried out 
the remainder of his instructions, he also investigated the Solomon 
Islands, which had been misplaced on maps ever since their discovery 
in 1568 by Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendana. Then, after cruising 
along the west coast of Australia, visiting New Zealand, and discover¬ 
ing the Entrecasteaux Island east of the Solomon chain, the admiral 
sailed for France by way of Batavia, where he fell ill and died from a 
combination of scurvy and dysentery. 

The last two voyages of significance into the Pacific occurred at 
the beginning of the final decade of the eighteenth century against a 
backdrop of international dispute over rival commercial and territorial 
interests along the northwest coast of North America, from present- 
day Oregon and British Columbia to Alaska. That dispute, called the 
Nootka Sound Crisis, brought Spain and Great Britain to the brink of 
war in 1789. Initiating the crisis was Spain’s growing concern over 
French, British, and Russian expeditions into the South Sea, which the 
kingdom still regarded as a Spanish lake. Spurred on by Russian activ¬ 
ity in Alaska, the royal authorities at Madrid ordered the colonization 
of northern California in 1769 to secure their territorial possession. 
They also dispatched several expeditions to explore the coasts from 
San Francisco Bay northward, under Juan Perez (1774), Juan 
Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra (1775), and Ignacio de Arteaga 
(1779) in order to assert Spanish claims, assess the extent of Russian 
settlement in Alaska, and intercept Cook’s ships during his third 
voyage in search of a Northwest Passage. In addition to their political 
purposes were added scientific curiosity, as all three expeditions car¬ 
ried botanists and artists to study and collect specimens of the regional 
flora and fauna. Finally, in 1789 the Spaniards took formal possession 
of Nootka Sound on present-day Vancouver Island, expelling the 
British merchants who traded furs there with the local natives. 

Exploration of the Great South Sea 


It was against this background that the voyages into the Pacific 
northwest of Alejandro Malaspina (1789-1795) and George Vancouver 
(1791-1795) occurred. Because Malaspina (ca. 1755-1810) was 
commissioned to undertake a scientific expedition to circumnavigate 
the world, his two ships included botanists, ethnographers, and 
artists. Malaspina was also to evaluate the status of Spanish posses¬ 
sions in the Americas and to reassert Spanish claims in the South 
Sea. A veteran of Captain Cook’s third voyage, Vancouver (1757— 
1798) was similarly directed to survey the northwest coast of North 
America in support of British fur-trading interests there, to continue 
the search for a western entrance into the Northwest Passage, and to 
resolve the diplomatic crisis with Spain on behalf of the British 
Crown. In late August 1792, Vancouver’s two ships entered Nootka 
Sound, where he negotiated a satisfactory settlement with the resi¬ 
dent Spanish commander, Bodega y Quadra, and with Malaspina, 
who had arrived shortly before the Englishman. Following this 
peaceful resolution of the Anglo-Spanish dispute, Malaspina contin¬ 
ued his mission by charting the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and 
California before crossing the Pacific to Guam, the Philippines, New 
Zealand, and Australia. He then retraced his path across the Pacific 
for his homeward voyage to Spain via Cape Horn in 1795. Mean¬ 
while, Vancouver spent two summers (1791-1792) exploring the 
North American coast between Alaska and San Diego, before sailing 
homeward by Cape Horn. He reached England in September 1795 
and published an account of his expedition in 1798, just a few 
months before his death at the age of forty-one. 

Although Alejandro Malaspina did not circumnavigate the 
globe as instructed, having departed from and returned to Spain 
around the tip of South America, his five-year voyage comple¬ 
mented the earlier expeditions of Cook, Bougainville, and La 
Perouse. In addition to the information collected on the flora, 
fauna, and native cultures of the Americas, which was conducted in 
the prevailing spirit of scientific inquiry that characterized all the 
major voyages of the late eighteenth century, he was the first to 
map the Pacific coasts of North and South America with precision. 
As for George Vancouver, in addition to proving conclusively that 
no Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans 
existed south of the Bering Sea, he also established British claims to 
the Oregon coast, British Columbia, and Vancouver Island by 
means of his detailed surveys of the North American shoreline. 
Subsequently, the charts he produced of the Lower Columbia River 
would aid the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-1806) in the final 
stages of its journey overland through the territories just recently 



acquired for the United States by President Thomas Jefferson as 
part of the Louisiana Purchase. 


1. John Dunmore, French Explorers in the Pacific, 2 vols. (Oxford: 
Clarendon Press, 1965), 1:3. 

2. J. C. Beaglehole, The Exploration of the Pacific, 3rd edition 
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), 9-10. 

3. Ibid., 10-12. 

4. William L. Schurz, “The Spanish Lake,” ELispanic American Histori¬ 
cal Review vol. 5, no. 2 (May 1922): 184. 

5. Daniel A. Baugh, “Seapower and Science: The Motives for Pacific 
Exploration,” in Derek Howse, ed., Background to Discovery: Pacific Exploration 
from Dumpier to Cook (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 6—7. 

6. Glyndwr Williams, The Great South Sea: English Voyages and 
Encounters, 1570-1750 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 4. 

7. Schurz, “The Spanish Lake,” 106. 

8. The original name given to the chain was Las Islas de Marquesas de 
Mendoza, which was simplified over time to its modern name, the Marquesas. 

9. Glyndwr Williams, The Great South Sea, 12. 

10. Ibid., 47. 

11. Beaglehole, Exploration of the Pacific, 143. 

12. Ibid., 163-164; Williams, The Great South Sea, 65. 

13. Beaglehole, Exploration of the Pacific, 177-178. 

14. Philip Edwards, ed., The Journals of Captain Cook (London: 
Penguin, 1999), 168, 333. 

15. Lynn Withey, Voyages of Discovery: Captain Cook and the Explora¬ 
tion of the Pacific (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 45. 

16. J. Holland Rose, “Captain Cook and the South Seas,” in Robert G. 
Albion, ed., Exploration and Discovery (New York: MacMillan, 1965), 86. 

17. Friday, 1 January 1768, John Dunmore, trans. and ed.. The Pacific 
Journal of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, 1767-1768 (London: Hakluyt Soci¬ 
ety, 2002), 24. Instead, Bougainville continued, these authors “want to make 
a book that appeals to the silly women of both sexes and end up writing a 
book that every reader finds boring and no one finds of any use.” 

18. A. Carey Taylor, “Charles de Brosses, the Man behind Cook,” in 
The Opening of the Pacific: Image and Reality (London: National Maritime 
Museum, 1971), 13. 

19. Edwards, Journals of Captain Cook, 411-412. 

20. Ibid., 595. 

21. Rose, “Captain Cook and the South Seas,” 89. 


The great Age of Discovery effectively closed with the voyages of Alejandro 
Malaspina and George Vancouver into the north Pacific Ocean, not because 
Europeans suddenly lost interest in exploring remote regions of the globe 
or finding new lands and new human cultures hitherto unknown to them, 
but because Europe became embroiled after 1789 in the political and mili¬ 
tary convulsions of the French Revolution and the subsequent rise of Napo¬ 
leon Bonaparte. For a generation or more, national energies and resources 
were expended across the continent on a new series of wars that ultimately 
transformed the face of Europe but in the meantime distracted attention 
away from voyages overseas, except for strategic advantage or colonial pro¬ 
tection. During the same period, European society began to experience pro¬ 
found social, economic, and demographic change caused by the developing 
Industrial Revolution that hit full stride after 1815, but the effects of which 
were already being felt in 1800. 

By that date, however, much of the work of maritime discovery had 
been accomplished. European mariners had sailed all the world’s great seas 
and had established new shipping lanes that linked the societies of the In¬ 
dian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans through trade, cultural contact, and in 
some places conquest followed by colonization. In the process, the contours 
of almost every continent on earth had been explored and mapped with 
ever-greater precision, providing Europeans with an increasingly accurate 
geographic understanding of the globe. But these results had completed 
only the first phase of activity that led eventually to Western domination of 
the world by the close of the nineteenth century. For with few exceptions, 
notably in the New World where much of South America had been sub¬ 
dued, colonized, and brought into the European system by Spain, and 
where long segments of the Atlantic seaboard had been settled by English 
and French colonists from Georgia in the south to Quebec, Acadia, and 
Newfoundland in the north, Europeans were still confined to the ports and 
peripheries of Asia, Africa, North America, and Australia. The interiors of 
these great continents had yet to be explored. 



To be sure, a few overland expeditions under Henry Kelsey (1690-1692), 
Anthony Henday (1754—1759), and Alexander MacKenzie (1789-1793), to 
name three, had penetrated the Canadian hinterland west to the Rocky Moun¬ 
tains and north to the mouth of the MacKenzie River. Similarly, portions of 
what later became the southwestern United States had been investigated as far 
as the Grand Canyon by a handful of Spanish explorers, such as Francisco Vas- 
quez de Coronado (1540-1542), though the first American expedition across 
the continent to the Pacific coast had to wait until 1803, when Meriwether 
Lewis and William Clark were commissioned by President Jefferson to under¬ 
take the journey. But in 1800, the vast interior of North America was almost 
completely unknown. The same was true of large portions of inner Asia, where 
such exotic places as Samarkand, Bokhara, and Tashkent along the ancient Silk 
Road had not been visited by Europeans since the late Middle Ages if ever (as 
in the case of the mysterious land of Tibet), and still remained the stuff of 
legend. Even Siberia, which the Russians had conquered and colonized by the 
mid-seventeenth century, was to western Europe not just an unknown land but 
also a closely guarded secret of the tsars, who had yet to exercise effective con¬ 
trol over this enormous region of the globe. 

European influence and knowledge were similarly limited elsewhere. 
The island empire of Japan, for example, was still closed to the West, 
except for the Dutch East India Company, which, since 1637, had been 
allowed to send two trading ships annually to the port of Nagasaki, in par¬ 
tial reward for Dutch aid in crushing a rebellion of Japanese Catholics con¬ 
verted by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries. Meanwhile, the twin 
obstacles of climate and disease continued to protect the interior of Africa, 
the so-called Dark Continent, against European intrusion. Only later in the 
nineteenth century would men like Sir Richard Burton, John Speke, and 
David Livingstone begin to unlock its secrets in their search for the lost 
mines of King Solomon or the source of the Nile River, among other goals. 
In the Pacific region the pace of incorporation into the European system 
moved more quickly because of the general passivity of the indigenous peo¬ 
ples and the compact size of their islands, which were claimed, cultivated, 
settled, and in many places Christianized by Europeans. 

Thus only in embryonic form were the effects of Western civilization 
felt for good or ill in most inhabited parts of the globe by 1800. The full 
realization of European hegemony would not begin until the mid-nine¬ 
teenth century, when the larger processes of social, political, and economic 
change wrought by the French and Industrial Revolutions transformed 
Western views of the world and the West’s place within it. Perhaps as early 
as 1815, but almost certainly by the time of Britain’s victory over China in 
the First Opium War (1839-1842), the old motives of gold, God, and per¬ 
sonal glory, which had inspired the initial voyages of discovery after 1415, 
had all but disappeared. What remained was the commercial impulse that 
lay behind the foundation of the old trading post empires of the sixteenth 


11 7 

and seventeenth centuries, and the spirit of scientific inquiry that had char¬ 
acterized the voyages of the late eighteenth century, though in much altered 
form. Different motives now emerged for European expansion overseas, as 
Great Britain, France, Russia, and even the United States, together with a 
few smaller countries like Belgium and the Dutch Netherlands, inaugurated 
a new Age of Imperialism that was driven by intense national rivalry for ter¬ 
ritorial acquisition particularly in Africa and Asia, the unbridled exploita¬ 
tion of colonial possessions for their raw resources, and the often brutal 
subjugation of indigenous peoples. All this activity was justified by notions 
of the “white mans burden,” with its claims to racial and cultural superior¬ 
ity, which were accompanied by a belief in Europe’s civilizing mission to 
spread the benefits of Western culture to every corner of the earth. Where 
industrialization provided the physical means for imperial success, national¬ 
ism provided the motive energy and inspiration. These two isms, the histor¬ 
ical circumstances of their birth, and the consequences they produced 
represent the real division between the older Age of Discovery and the 
dawn of a new Imperial Age in terms of motives and objectives. 

Personalities of the 
Age of Discovery 

Pietro Martire d’Anghiera (1457-1526) was an Italian historian of 
the Spanish voyages of discovery. Together with Bartolomeo de las 
Casas, he was the first historian of the Americas. He was born in 
Arona, near Anghiera, on Lake Maggiore in Italy. At Rome in 1477 
he became acquainted with Don Inigo Lopez de Mendoza, Count of 
Tendilla, a sea captain and the Spanish ambassador to Rome. Pietro 
Martire accompanied the count to Zaragoza in northeastern Spain in 
1487 and entered the service of the queen as a teacher at the court. 
He soon became a notable figure as a lecturer and a favorite of 
Isabella. In 1501 he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Egypt, and 
in 1504 he served as part of the funeral escort of Queen Isabella. 

In 1511 Pietro Martire was appointed chronicler in the newly 
formed State Council of India, with the task of describing the voy¬ 
ages to the New World and what was happening there. One of his 
first works was a historical account of the great Spanish discoveries 
under the title of Opera, Legatio, Babylonica, Oceanidecas, Paemata, 
Epigrammata, published in 1511. 

Pietro Martire’s most ambitious work was a History of the New 
World, published in eight decades over the course of more than 
twenty years. The first decade was published in chapters from 1504 
to 1511. It described the voyages of Christopher Columbus and 
others. By 1516 he had finished two other decades, the first describ¬ 
ing the exploits of Ojeda, Nicuesa, and Balboa, the other giving an 
account of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean by Balboa, the fourth 
voyage of Columbus, and the expeditions of Pedrarias. A fourth dec¬ 
ade was published in 1521 describing the voyages of Hernandez de 
Cordoba, Drijalva, and Cortes. The fifth decade, published in 1523, 
dealt with the conquest of Mexico and the circumnavigation of the 
world by Magellan. In 1524, the sixth decade gave an account of 
the discoveries of Davila on the west coast of America. In 1525, the 


Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 

seventh and eighth decades described the customs of the natives in 
South Carolina, Florida, Haiti, Cuba, and Darien, and the march of 
Cortes against Olit. 

Pietro Martire obtained much of his information for his decades 
from the explorers themselves. Personally acquainted with Columbus, 
he interviewed him and corresponded with him following his voyages. 
Pietro Martire himself had a firm grasp of geographical issues. For 
example, he was the first to realize the significance of the Gulf 
Stream. Flis decades are of great value in the history of geography 
and discovery. All eight decades were published together for the first 
time at Alcala in 1530, four years after Pietro Martire’s death. 

Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville (1729 1811) was born 
in Paris to a prominent lawyer. At first destined for a legal career, he 
switched to mathematics, which he studied under the encyclopedist 
Jean le Rond d’Alembert. In 1756, the young Bougainville, who had 
entered the French military two years before, published a treatise on 
calculus, in recognition for which he was elected a fellow of Britain’s 
Royal Society. The same year, he left for Canada as aide-de-camp to 
the marquis de Montcalm (1712-1759) and, after British troops took 
Quebec in 1759, endeavored unsuccessfully to continue the resis¬ 
tance from Montreal. He subsequently participated in the negotia¬ 
tions for the surrender of New France to Great Britain in 1760, but 
for distinguished service was promoted to the rank of colonel and 
rewarded with the chivalric Order of St. Louis. 

With the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, Bougainville con¬ 
ceived the idea of colonizing the Malouines Islands (in English, the 
Falklands; in Spanish, the Maldives), using Acadian settlers displaced 
from Canada. This plan was part of a larger scheme to rebuild a 
French overseas empire to replace the territories lost to Britain in 
the recent war. From 1764 to 1766 he led three expeditions to the 
islands, while also surveying the coasts of Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia, 
and the Strait of Magellan. Under pressure from Spain, the French 
government relinquished the Malouines to Spanish control, and in 
compensation for his efforts offered Bougainville the governorship of 
two islands in the Indian Ocean, present-day Mauritius and Reunion. 
He chose instead to command a state-sponsored circumnavigation of 
the globe, with particular focus on finding the Terra Australis Incog¬ 
nita in the Pacific, one of the last oceans on earth where Great 
Britain had yet to establish a strong naval presence. The expedition 
of two ships, accompanied by naturalists and astronomers, lasted 
from December 1766 to March 1769. Although it made few new dis¬ 
coveries, it successfully relocated many islands found by Spanish 
explorers in the sixteenth century that had been plotted incorrectly 

Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 


on maps because of problems of calculating longitude without preci¬ 
sion instruments. In terms of scientific contribution, on the other 
hand, more than three thousand specimens of new plant and animal 
species were collected, including a tropical flowering vine now 
known as Bougainvillea. 

After returning to France, Bougainville published an account of 
his circumnavigation in 1771, which sold well but was ignored by 
French society. As a result, he was unable to complete further voy¬ 
ages, including one he had planned for the North Pole a year later. 
Instead, he was promoted to commodore and later admiral in the 
French navy and saw action during the American War for Indepen¬ 
dence and the French Revolution. He subsequently became a favorite 
of Napoleon Bonaparte, who made him a senator, count, and mem¬ 
ber of the Legion of Honor. When Bougainville died at Paris in 1811, 
his body was interred in the Pantheon, a distinction reserved for the 
greatest names in French history. 

Sebastian Cabot (ca. 1476-1557) was the son of Giovanni 
Caboto (John Cabot, ca. 1450-ca. 1498). Born in Venice, Sebastian 
moved with his family to Valencia, Spain, in about 1490. Perhaps 
three years later, the family moved to Bristol, England, where he was 
probably taught the art of making charts and possibly globes by his 
seafaring father. At about thirteen, he accompanied his father’s suc¬ 
cessful 1497 voyage, which discovered Newfoundland. Having sailed 
throughout the eastern Mediterranean from about 1470 to about 
1480, John Cabot had speculated that the discovery of a direct route 
by sea west to Asia could increase profits from the spice trade by cut¬ 
ting out the Arab middlemen. During the 1480s, therefore, he had 
sought sponsorship in Spain and England for this project, at the same 
time that Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was proposing a similar 
scheme. In 1493 Henry VII of England granted Cabot permission to 
explore westward across the Atlantic, though not until 1497 did a 
group of Bristol merchants finance the venture. Cabot’s mistaken claim 
to have reached China secured backing for a second, larger enterprise 
in 1498, in which Sebastian might have participated. If so, he was 
among the few survivors, for with the exception of a single ship that 
returned to port for repairs, the expedition disappeared without a 
trace along the northeast coast of North America. 

In 1504 and 1508, Sebastian Cabot made two more voyages to 
explore the American shoreline from New England to Labrador. In 
1512, he not only was appointed chief cartographer to the English 
court by the new Tudor monarch, Henry VIII, but also was 
approached by King Ferdinand of Aragon to enter Spanish service as 
an explorer. Cabot accepted the offer, and six years later became 


Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 

chief pilot—a position first held by Amerigo Vespucci (ca. 1451- 
1512)—at the court of Charles I (later Holy Roman Emperor Charles 
V), the grandson and heir of Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile. 
Sebastian retained this post until 1547, teaching navigation and pre¬ 
paring charts on the expanding Spanish empire as head of the pilot 
office in the Casa de la Contratacion, a bureau founded by royal 
decree in 1503 to promote trade and navigation to the Americas. 
Also during this period, he met such individuals as Pietro Martire 
d’Anghiera (ca. 1457-1526), a prominent royal councillor and the 
earliest chronicler of the New World discoveries. 

In 1525, Cabot led an expedition to investigate the Rio de la 
Plata (the modern-day boundary between Argentina and Uruguay) to 
determine if there was a passage to the Pacific in a more temperate 
latitude than the newly discovered Strait of Magellan, about which the 
Spanish court had just learned. Sailing with four ships and two hun¬ 
dred soldiers and colonists in April 1526, Cabot did his best to 
explore the complex of inland waterways that make up the river’s es¬ 
tuary. But he found no trans-American route to the Pacific; his efforts 
to find gold and establish a colony on the Parana River also failed. 
Dissent among his crew forced him to return to Spain in 1530, where 
he resumed his duties as chief pilot. In 1547, he retired to England, 
where he spent his remaining years planning a northeast route to 
China across the top of Europe and Asia. Appointed governor in 1551 
of the London-based Company of Merchant Adventurers (or Muscovy 
Company), he helped organize expeditions under Sir Hugh Wil¬ 
loughby (ca. 1500-1554), Richard Chancellor (d. 1556), and Stephen 
Borough (1525-1584) between 1553 and 1556. As a result of his 
efforts, by the time of his death in 1557, Sebastian Cabot had helped 
provide Europeans with a clearer idea of the extent of the New World; 
he had also helped initiate a search for a Northeast Passage and facili¬ 
tate trade by sea between England and Russia. 

James Cook (1728-1779) was the second of eight children born 
to parents who were farm laborers in rural England. Apprenticed at 
age sixteen to a dry goods merchant at the fishing village of Staithes, 
two years later he signed aboard the collier Freelove at the port of 
Whitby, shipping coal along England’s North Sea coast. In the mean¬ 
time, Cook—with just four years of formal education—studied math¬ 
ematics, astronomy, and navigation on his own. On the eve of the 
Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), he joined the Royal Navy, where his 
talented seamanship attracted the attention of his captain, Sir Hugh 
Palliser, aboard HMS Eagle during the Quebec campaign of 1759. 
Assigned to map the St. Lawrence River following the surrender of 
French Canada, Cook subsequently undertook coastal surveys of 

Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 


Newfoundland, the Strait of Belle Isle, and the Cabot Strait. The skill 
with which he completed both undertakings helped to secure his 
first naval command of the schooner Grenville in 1764, on which he 
returned to Newfoundland two years later to observe a solar eclipse. 
The findings from this expedition were published in 1768 by the 
Royal Society of London. 

By this time, Great Britain had strategic, commercial, and scien¬ 
tific motives for exploring the Pacific Ocean, in competition with 
France. Early in 1768, the British Admiralty and the Royal Society 
planned an expedition to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus, pre¬ 
dicted for June 1769, and to find the Terra Australis Incognita, or 
Great Southern Continent, believed to exist in the South Pacific. 
Eventually, Cook was selected to command the expedition aboard 
HMS Endeavour because of his considerable experience and naviga¬ 
tional skill, though he was not an officer. Promoted to the rank of 
lieutenant (he rose to captain in 1775), he completed his first expe¬ 
dition (1768-1772) with distinction. Two more voyages to the Pacific 
followed, from 1772 to 1775 and 1776 to 1779. During the third 
expedition, Cook was killed in a dispute with Hawaiian islanders 
over a stolen ship’s boat. He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and 
three sons: James, Nathaniel, and Hugh. 

Cook’s legacy to the Age of Discovery is unparalleled. Geo¬ 
graphically, his voyages had dispelled the myth of Terra Australis 
(apart from Antarctica, about which he speculated), while casting 
doubt on the existence of an interocean passage above North 
America. Scientifically, his travels had made significant contributions 
to contemporary knowledge of navigation, astronomy, and natural 
history through the plant and animal specimens that were collected. 
Ethnographically, his expeditions had encountered numerous Pacific 
cultures, which he had described empathetically in plain language, 
without literary pretension. Although Cook’s early and middle life 
were poorly recorded, fortunately his last ten years were well docu¬ 
mented through his own logs and journals and the accounts of those 
who served with him. He had visited, charted, and described most of 
the island groups in the Pacific and is credited with defining the 
ocean’s boundaries. For these reasons, the name James Cook is syn¬ 
onymous with exploration. 

Vasco da Gama (ca. 1460-1524) was born at the Portuguese 
seaport of Sines, where his father became civil governor after 1478. 
Early in his youth, Da Gama went to sea, and while serving in the 
Portuguese fleet he acquired a knowledge of mathematics and navi¬ 
gation. Shortly after Bartolomeu Dias (1450-1500) had rounded the 
Cape of Good Hope a follow-up expedition to India was planned 


Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 

and Da Gama’s father was chosen to command it, but the voyage was 
delayed for nearly a decade because of domestic politics and conflict 
with Spain. Interest was rekindled with the news of Columbus’s dis¬ 
coveries in 1492-1493, followed by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) 
that awarded Portugal dominion over an eastern sea route to Asia. In 

1497, command fell to the younger Da Gama (his father having died 
earlier the same year), as he had risen to high naval rank on his own 
account by this time as a member of the royal household. 

With four ships and 170 men, Da Gama sailed from Lisbon on 
3 July, accompanied by Dias as pilot for the initial stage of the voy¬ 
age. In late November, the fleet rounded the Cape, sailed up the east 
coast of South Africa, and landed at Mozambique in early March 

1498. Here the Portuguese met armed opposition from the local 
Muslim rulers, who feared Christian-European interference with 
their trading networks. Farther north at Malindi, however, Da Gama 
was well received and provided with an experienced pilot for the 
voyage across the Indian Ocean to Calicut, where the fleet arrived 
on 20 May. Despite his efforts to establish cordial relations with the 
port city’s ruler, or Zamorin, Da Gama was opposed again by Muslim 
Arab merchants who dominated the city’s commerce. Nevertheless, 
he managed to trade the cheap European goods he had brought for a 
modest cargo of pepper before making the long return voyage to 
Lisbon, which he reached in September 1499. 

Da Gama made two more voyages to India. In 1502, as admiral 
of the Indian Sea in command of twenty ships, he conducted a naval 
campaign against Muslim shipping off the southwest coast of the 
subcontinent, bombarded Calicut, subdued neighboring Cochin, and 
established Portuguese outposts at Sofala and Mozambique in east 
Africa. In 1524, he returned to India as viceroy of Portugal’s growing 
maritime empire in Asia. He died on Christmas Eve, soon after his 
arrival at Goa, the Portuguese headquarters in India. His body was 
shipped to Lisbon for burial. Da Gama’s first expedition surpassed 
Columbus’s voyage of 1492 as the finest feat of seamanship to that 
date. It took 209 days and covered a distance of more than twelve 
thousand miles, five times that traveled by Columbus. Da Gama was 
also the better navigator, for the accuracy of his charts was superior 
to the error-ridden efforts of the Genoese-born explorer. The results 
of Da Gama’s voyage also stirred excitement in Europe in contrast to 
Columbus’s disappointing discovery, for he opened a direct sea route 
to the riches of Asia, a goal that had fired the European imagination 
since the days of Marco Polo. 

Richard Hakluyt (ca. 1552-1616) was born in London, edu¬ 
cated at Oxford, and had a lifelong interest in geography and 

Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 


exploration. The fervently nationalistic Hakluyt was an armchair 
geographer who never traveled farther than Paris. An eminently 
modest man, little is known about him apart from his work. He is 
buried in an unmarked grave at Westminster Abbey. He wrote with 
great pride about English navigators and argued that geographical 
knowledge would benefit the country. His work helped create public 
pride in England’s maritime achievements and rouse interest in Eng¬ 
lish colonization of North America. 

In 1570, Hakluyt was elected one of two Westminster Queen’s 
Scholars to Christ Church College at Oxford. He remained there for 
thirteen or fourteen years and made many contacts with other geog¬ 
raphers, including Mercator. He became a clergyman in the Church 
of England, being ordained a deacon in 1577 and a priest in 1580. 
One of Hakluyt’s personal goals at Oxford was to read all the avail¬ 
able accounts of exploration and discovery. His first book, published 
in 1582, was a contribution to that genre. Divers Voyages touching the 
Discovery of America and the Lands adjacent unto the same, made first 
of all by our Englishmen, and afterwards by the Frenchmen and Bretons 
described English exploration of the New World, emphasizing 
England’s preeminence in the enterprise. As a result of this work, in 
1583 Hakluyt was appointed chaplain to Sir Edward Stafford (1535— 
1603), English ambassador to the French court. 

While in France, Richard Hakluyt wrote A Particular Discourse 
Concerning Westerne Discoveries, which promoted colonization of 
North America as a way to alleviate problems of unemployment and 
overpopulation. He also undertook the task of collecting information 
on the Spanish and French voyages to America. He found a multi¬ 
tude of accounts of voyages of discovery by nations other than Eng¬ 
land and thereafter made it his life’s work to correct that imbalance 
by researching and writing about English voyages. The best known 
of the resulting works was Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques, 
and Discoveries of the English Nation, published in 1589, the year 
after England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada. The work is a compila¬ 
tion of various personal accounts of English sea captains and explor¬ 
ers, though it embroiders the truth at times to emphasize England’s 
contribution to exploration and discovery. It was later revised and 
republished in three volumes, 1598-1600. A few copies of the re¬ 
vised work included a now very rare map drawn on the Mercator 

The bulk of Hakluyt’s other work consists of translations and 
compilations. A translation of Laudonniere’s Flistoire notable de la 
Florida was published in 1587, and in 1601 Hakluyt edited a transla¬ 
tion from the Portuguese of Antonio Galvano’s Discoveries of the 


Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 

World. He also served as an adviser to the East India Company, sup¬ 
plying them with maps and offering information about markets. 

John Harrison (1693-1776) was an English horologist and in¬ 
ventor of the first accurate marine chronometer. He embarked upon 
his life’s work of perfecting a marine chronometer when in 1714 the 
British Board of Longitude announced a prize of £20,000 for the per¬ 
son who could devise a method of measuring a ship’s longitude 
anywhere on earth to an accuracy of half a degree (thirty minutes 
of longitude). At that time, a knowledge of longitude was necessary 
to navigate a ship accurately and to plot accurate maps of the new 
lands that were being discovered. 

The system of latitude and longitude was developed in antiq¬ 
uity and Ptolemy’s Geographia included the coordinates of various 
places so that cartographers could plot their maps. The prime paral¬ 
lel for latitude was easily set at the equator, with smaller concentric 
circles of latitude drawn to the poles. Longitude was a more difficult 
problem, since the lines were not parallel, but rather converged at 
the poles. At sea, the problem was even more acute. Various methods 
were devised to measure longitude, but none was accurate. 

Scientists in England began attacking the problem of longitude 
in the mid-seventeenth century, founding for that purpose the Royal 
Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge. Various 
proposals were made, including that of using clocks. At the time, 
however, a clock had not been developed that could keep accurate 
time aboard ship. Shifts in temperature and air pressure and the 
motion of the ship all adversely affected a clock’s ability to keep the 
correct time. 

John Harrison perfected a seaworthy timepiece in 1727. His 
clock had a special pendulum that was designed to eliminate the 
effects of temperature changes. In 1735, John Harrison completed 
the first of several chronometers, each of which he made smaller and 
more accurate. He designed the instrument with a clock set to the 
time in Greenwich, England, site of the prime meridian, or 0° longi¬ 
tude. It could be carried on a ship and read at noon local time to 
determine the ship’s longitude. Since the earth revolves 360° in 
twenty-four hours, or 15° per hour, the time difference multiplied by 
fifteen gave the ship’s longitude. 

Harrison’s fourth chronometer, finished in 1759, was carried in a 
trial across the Atlantic Ocean from England to Jamaica and back in 
1762. Harrison’s clock was found to have an error of only one and a 
quarter minutes of longitude, which far surpassed the requirements for 
the prize. The Royal Society and the Board of Longitude were unwill¬ 
ing to give Harrison the award, however, arguing that it might have 

Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 


been chance that his chronometer worked. There were also many 
members of the Royal Society who still hoped to win the prize them¬ 
selves. Harrison did win the award in 1763, but did not receive the 
prize money until 1773, after King George III intervened on his behalf. 

Alvaro de Mendana (ca. 1541-1595) was born in Spain but lit¬ 
tle is known of his life before 1567, when he commanded his first 
expedition of two ships. Its purpose was to explore the South Pacific 
west of Peru for the Terra Australis Incognita, a legendary continent 
of unimaginable wealth associated with King Solomon and the bibli¬ 
cal lands of Orphir and Tarshish. Inspiration for the voyage came 
from Mendana’s second in command, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa 
(ca. 1530-ca. 1592), a cosmographer, amateur mathematician, and 
student of Inca history who had been to Chile and Peru in 1557. 
According to tradition, an Inca emperor had voyaged to the west and 
found two islands from which he returned laden with treasure. Sar¬ 
miento believed these islands lay near the Terra Australis, somewhere 
west of Tierra del Fuego. But because Sarmiento was under investiga¬ 
tion by the Inquisition for his interest in magic, the viceroy of Peru 
gave command of the expedition to his nephew, Mendana, who thus 
became among the earliest Europeans to search for the Terra 
Australis, the discoverer of many new islands, and the first to 
attempt colonization of the South Pacific. 

Sailing west from Callao in November 1567, the two ships 
encountered the Elice Islands after eighty days at sea, having passed 
between the Marquesas and the Tuamotu chain without sighting 
either. A month later, Mendana came upon a second island cluster 
and what appeared to be a large landmass, which he named Santa 
Isabel in honor of the voyage’s patron saint. Although further investi¬ 
gation revealed it to be an island, Mendana was convinced that Santa 
Isabel was near the Terra Australis, and he called the island group 
the Solomons in reference to the Old Testament lands. After some 
exploration of the archipelago, the expedition sailed northward to 
the present-day Marshall Islands, before heading homeward across 
four thousand miles of the Pacific to the Santa Barbara Islands on 
the California coast. It reached Peru in early 1569. 

Because Mendana had found no gold, the Spanish authorities 
ignored his discoveries until 1595, after Francis Drake (ca. 1540-1596) 
and other English privateers had raided Spanish shipping along the 
South American coast. In order to find new lands to colonize and use 
as naval bases, Mendana sailed on a second voyage with four ships 
and 378 people, including soldiers, settlers, and Pedro Fernandez de 
Quiros (1565-1614) as second in command and chief pilot. After a 
month at sea, the fleet encountered an island group in July, which 


Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 

Mendana named the Marquesas after the viceroy of Peru. The ships 
then searched vainly for the Solomons, which Mendana had plotted 
incorrectly on his previous voyage because of the difficulties of calcu¬ 
lating longitude with the primitive instruments of the day. Finally 
making landfall in the Santa Cruz chain, Mendana attempted to found 
a colony. But after a mutiny and Mendana’s death from fever, the set¬ 
tlement was abandoned and the colonists sailed for the Philippines 
under the command of Quiros. The survivors reached Manila in No¬ 
vember 1595, ravaged by scurvy. 

Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), the Flemish geographer, car¬ 
tographer, and mathematician, was born in Rupelmonde, Flanders, 
in present-day Belgium. He studied at the University of Louvain, 
where he was an apprentice of Gemma Frisius (1508-1555). Merca¬ 
tor established himself as one of the most renowned cartographers of 
the Renaissance, as well as a maker of cartographic instruments. He 
is associated with the Mercator projection, a map projection espe¬ 
cially suited for navigation. 

Mercator produced his first map, of Palestine, in 1537. In 1538, 
he published a map of the world drawn on a double-heart projec¬ 
tion. This was the first map to identify North and South America as 
separate continents. In 1541, he completed a terrestrial globe and 
later added a celestial counterpart. In 1544, he was convicted of her¬ 
esy, partly because of his Protestant beliefs and partly because of sus¬ 
picions aroused by his wide travels in search of data for his maps. 
He spent seven months in prison, and in 1552 he moved to Duisburg 
to escape further persecution. He was appointed surveyor and cos- 
mographer to Duke Wilhelm V of Julich-Cleve-Berge. This appoint¬ 
ment inspired him to embark on a series of works on geography, 
cosmography, and mathematics. Among these was a version of 
Ptolemy’s Geographici, published in 1578. He devoted himself to cre¬ 
ating maps of Europe and other parts of the world, the first of which 
used contemporary information to correct errors on Ptolemy’s maps. 
He was the first to use the word atlas to describe a collection of 
maps of the world, and his own atlas was published in parts from 
1578 until 1595, the year after his death. 

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian traveler and author 
whose account of his travels offered Europeans a firsthand descrip¬ 
tion of Asian lands and cultures and stimulated interest in trade. He 
was the son of Niccolo Polo, a merchant, who with his brother Maf- 
feo, first journeyed to China between 1260 and 1269. They became 
acquainted with the Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan (1214-1294), 
who requested that they bring one hundred scholars to teach his 
people about the West. To ensure the Polos’ safe travel to and from 

Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 


Europe, the Khan gave them golden tablets bearing his inscription, 
which served as passports and authorized the travelers to receive 
food, lodging, and other necessities throughout the Great Khan’s 

In 1271, when Marco Polo was seventeen, he joined his father 
and uncle on their second journey through Asia. He entered the 
service of Kublai Khan and traveled on various diplomatic assign¬ 
ments to the Mongol empire, India, China, and Burma. Many of the 
places Marco Polo visited were not seen again by Europeans until 
the nineteenth century. He was amazed by China’s enormous power, 
great wealth, and complex social structure. The Polos remained at 
the Khan’s court for seventeen years, acquiring great wealth. They 
wished to return to Venice for fear that if the elderly Kublai Khan 
died, they might be unable to move their fortune out of the country. 
The Khan reluctantly agreed to let them return after they escorted a 
Mongol princess who was marrying a Persian prince. The arduous 
sea journey to Hormuz took two years, and upon their arrival they 
learned of the death of Kublai Khan. The power of the golden tablet 
continued to ensure their safe passage, however. They finally arrived 
at Venice in 1295. 

In 1298, Marco became involved in a naval conflict with Genoa. 
He was captured and imprisoned for a year, where his stories of his 
adventures caught the attention of the romance writer Rustichello, 
who transcribed and published them as The Travels of Marco Polo. 
Despite some skepticism over its authenticity, Travels became one of 
the most popular books in medieval Europe and exercised great 
influence on European readers. Merchants drew inspiration from the 
account when they planned commercial ventures, and cartographers 
looked to it for information about Asian lands. Some of Polo’s infor¬ 
mation was incorporated into maps of the later Middle Ages. Portu¬ 
guese mariners studied Travels when they decided to seek a sea route 
to India in the fifteenth century, and Christopher Columbus relied 
heavily upon the work when planning his own voyage to Asia by 
sailing west from Europe. 

In 1299, Marco Polo was released from prison and returned to 
Venice. He remained there until his death in 1324, at which time he 
still owned a quantity of cloths and brocades of silk and gold, 
exactly like those mentioned in his book, together with other pre¬ 
cious objects. Among the items was the golden tablet that had been 
given him by the Great Khan. 

Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus) (ca. 85-165) was a Greek as¬ 
tronomer, geographer, and mathematician generally believed to have 
been born in Upper Egypt and to have lived in Alexandria. He made 


Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 

astronomical observations from Alexandria during the years a.d. 127 
to 141, and from these observations compiled data for use in both 
celestial and terrestrial cartography. He wrote during a time when 
geographical knowledge was expanding under the Roman Empire, 
from the British Isles to Africa to Asia, resulting in a need for new 
maps. Ptolemy’s most influential works were the Almagest, a thir¬ 
teen-book treatise on mathematics, astronomy, and celestial 
cartography, and the Geographia, an eight-book work on terrestrial 

The Geographia was a manual for mapmakers, and an important 
part of Ptolemy’s legacy for Renaissance Europe and the Age of Dis¬ 
covery was his interest not only in the contents of a map but also in 
the process of mapmaking. Ptolemy’s view of the world was geocen¬ 
tric, and he believed that the earth could be divided into four quad¬ 
rants. He was aware that the earth is a sphere, and his was the first 
known projection of the sphere onto a plane. By listing coordinates 
of major places in terms of latitude and longitude, Ptolemy believed 
that any cartographer would be able to construct a map of the inhab¬ 
ited world. Ptolemy’s are the only such coordinates surviving from 
antiquity. His values for latitude were in error by up to 2°; longitude 
was even worse because there was no reliable method to determine 
geographic longitude, a problem that remained until the invention of 
the chronometer near the end of the eighteenth century. 

Ptolemy tried to locate as many as possible of the known places 
in the world, even if exact coordinates were not known. Rather than 
leaving blank the regions for which data were not available, Ptole¬ 
maic maps sketch in boundaries for Terra Incognita (unknown land). 
Maps drawn from Ptolemy’s coordinates are therefore inaccurate in 
many places, especially outside the Roman Empire, but his methods 
were sufficiently accurate to satisfy the needs of astronomers and 
navigators until the time of the great explorations. 

The most important of Ptolemy’s maps published in the early 
period of European printing were the world maps that accompanied 
various editions of the Geographia, the earliest of which date only 
from about 1300, after the text was rediscovered by Maximus Pla- 
nudes (ca. 1260-1330). In the fifteenth century, Ptolemy’s Geographia 
began to be printed with engraved maps. The translation of the Geo¬ 
graphia into Latin in the early fifteenth century brought Ptolemy’s 
influence to European cartography. It became the authority for Ren¬ 
aissance mapmakers who used Ptolemy’s instructions in constructing 
their own maps. Christopher Columbus owned a copy of the Geogra¬ 
phia and referred to Ptolemy’s methods for determining latitude. 
Ptolemy’s errors in exaggerating the size of Asia and in 

Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 


underestimating the earth’s circumference perhaps led Columbus to 
believe that Asia lay much farther east than it really did. This might 
have been a consideration in Columbus’s decision to sail west for the 

Pedro Fernandez de Quiros (1565-1615) was born in Portugal, 
but at the age of fifteen his family moved to Spain and became natu¬ 
ralized subjects. As a youth, Quiros entered maritime service under 
the Spanish Crown, traveling to Peru in 1591 and sailing aboard the 
Manila galleons that crossed the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and 
the Philippines. In time, Quiros became an experienced navigator, 
and in 1595 he embarked as second in command and chief pilot 
under Alvaro de Mendana (ca. 1541-1595) on an expedition into 
the South Pacific to search for the Solomon Islands, which Mendana 
had discovered in 1568. With the latter’s death from fever in the 
Santa Cruz Islands, Quiros took command and, under severe condi¬ 
tions, led the survivors of the venture to Manila in January 1596. A 
year later, he recrossed the Pacific to Mexico and thence to Spain, 
where he became tutor of geography to the son of the Spanish 
ambassador in Rome. Convinced that just south of the Santa Cruz 
archipelago discovered by Mendana in 1595-1596 lay the legendary 
Terra Australis Incognita, and backed by papal support, Quiros 
obtained permission from King Philip III for a new expedition to the 

With three ships, Quiros sailed from Calao, Peru, in late 
December 1605. Taking a more southerly course than Mendana had 
followed, the small squadron encountered the Tuamotu chain in Jan¬ 
uary 1606 and soon after Anaa Island, two hundred miles east of 
Tahiti. Continuing eastward, on 1 May Quiros sighted what he 
thought to be the shore of a large continent and concluded that it 
was the Terra Australis for which he sought. This he named Australia 
del Espiritu Santo and claimed it for Spain, along with all other land 
that extended southward from that point to the South Pole. (In real¬ 
ity, he had found Manicolo in the New Hebrides.) For reasons that 
are still unclear, six weeks after attempting to establish a colony at 
Novo Jerusalem, Quiros abandoned Espiritu Santo for the return 
voyage to Mexico. Along the way, the ship under command of his 
subordinate, Luis de Torres, was separated from the fleet in a storm 
and sailed westward to explore New Guinea, as well as the strait 
between it and Australia (now named for Torres), before resuming 
the voyage to Mexico. 

Quiros reached Acapulco in late November 1606 and a year 
later sailed for Spain, where he published an account of his voyage 
at his own expense. Living in poverty over the next seven years, he 


Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 

at last secured royal support for another expedition to the South 
Pacific. Quiros died in Panama en route to Peru in late 1615. 
Though the lack of precision instruments at the time prevented him 
from accurately plotting their location with any certainty the various 
island groups he had discovered kept alive contemporary belief that 
the Terra Australis existed until well into the eighteenth century 
when the legend was finally disproved. 

Abel Janszoon Tasman (ca. 1603-1659) was born in the Dutch 
village of Lutjegast, near Groningen. He joined the Dutch East India 
Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) in 1633 
and quickly rose to the rank of first mate aboard the Weesp and then 
captain of the Mocha (1634), a trading vessel in which he cruised 
among the spice-bearing Moluccas Islands on company business. He 
was back briefly in the United Provinces (or Dutch Netherlands) in 
1637, before returning to the East Indies in 1638 under contract to 
the VOC in command of the Engel. A year later, he participated in 
an expedition of two ships to the North Pacific, authorized by the 
VOC’s new governor-general at Batavia, Anthony van Diemen 
(7-1645). The expedition’s goal was to search near the Philippines, 
Taiwan, Korea, and Japan for a land rich in gold and silver that was 
alluded to in earlier Spanish accounts. The voyage was fruitless, 
however, and the explorers returned to Batavia, having found noth¬ 
ing of commercial value and ravaged by scurvy. 

But van Diemen was so impressed by Tasman’s seamanship that 
he was placed in command of two more expeditions. The first 
(1642-1643) was to determine if Australia (known either as South¬ 
land or New Holland) was the northern extension of the legendary 
Terra Australis Incognita, to ascertain whether New Guinea was an 
island or an extension of Australia, and to discover a shorter sea 
route to the Pacific coast of South America from the southern Indian 
Ocean. The second expedition (1644) was to answer the still unre¬ 
solved question of whether New Guinea and Australia were con¬ 
nected and to continue southward into the Gulf of Carpentaria to 
search for a possible strait through Australia to the Pacific Ocean. In 
the course of these two voyages, not only did Tasman discover Van 
Diemen’s Land (renamed Tasmania in 1853), New Zealand (which 
he believed was the western extent of the Terra Australis), the Fiji 
Islands, and New Britain and New Ireland (which he mistook for a 
single island), but he also sailed more than five thousand miles of 
the southern Indian and southwest Pacific Oceans and circumnavi¬ 
gated Australia without knowing it. But because Tasman’s discoveries 
had no commercial value, Governor-General van Diemen was unim¬ 
pressed with these accomplishments, and Tasman received little or 

Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 


no recognition at the time for his immense contribution to the 
knowledge of world geography. 

Giovanni da Verrazano (ca. 1485-1528) was probably born to 
an aristocratic family from Greve in Tuscany Italy though he might 
also have been born to Italian parents living in Lyon, France. What¬ 
ever the case, Verrazano always considered himself to be Florentine. 
Otherwise, almost nothing is known about his early life before his 
first trans-Atlantic voyage in 1524, under a commission from the 
French king Francis I to explore the North American coast in search 
of a sea passage to Asia. There is a possibility that Verrazano had al¬ 
ready visited the New World once before, perhaps in 1508, during a 
voyage to Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In any case, 
Verrazano’s name appears only rarely in surviving records, some of 
which state that in 1517 he was in Portugal and Spain in the com¬ 
pany of Ferdinand Magellan (ca. 1480-1521) and subsequently in 
Egypt and Syria. As for his voyage under royal French sponsorship 
in 1524, the actual commission has disappeared, but surviving letters 
make clear the official backing of Francis I. 

Embarking from the port of Dieppe on 1 January, Verrazano 
sailed west, hoping like Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), John 
and Sebastian Cabot, Miguel Corte-Real (ca. 1450-ca. 1502), and 
other contemporary navigators to find an all-water route to the Far 
East somewhere through the New World. Instead, he spent six 
months investigating the North American shoreline from modern- 
day Cape Fear, North Carolina, to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. He 
claimed all this territory for France, calling it Francesca in honor of 
his royal patron. In 1526-1527, Verrazano undertook a second expe¬ 
dition for the same purpose as the first one. This time, however, the 
voyage was backed by a syndicate of French merchants headed by 
Philippe Chabot, in order to compete with a Spanish venture sent 
out the same year under Sebastian Cabot (ca. 1476-1557). Taking a 
more southerly course than before, this expedition, perhaps Verraza¬ 
no’s third to the New World, was troubled from the outset. Still, the 
explorer managed to return to France with a cargo of tropical timber 
from Brazil that was valued in Europe for its dye properties. A final 
voyage followed in 1528 with the same goal as the previous two ven¬ 
tures, during which Verrazano apparently explored portions of Flor¬ 
ida, the Bahamas, Panama, and various Caribbean islands. It is also 
generally believed that he died on an island during this voyage at 
the hands of cannibals, who then ate him. 

Giovanni da Verrazano was the first European to bring back a 
description of North America not as an archipelago of islands as 
many believed, but as a single large landmass. In this way, 


Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 

geographers learned that the North American coast was continuous 
from Florida to Newfoundland. Although the names he gave to the 
places he saw or visited did not survive, the first map of North 
America was produced by his brother, the cartographer Girolamo da 
Verrazano, who accompanied him on his voyages. 

Amerigo Vespucci (ca. 1451-1512) was born in the Italian city- 
state of Florence, where he was educated in astronomy, geography, 
and natural philosophy (i.e., science) by his uncle, a Dominican 
priest. Employed by the powerful Medici family in their bank for 
nearly thirty years, in 1492 he was sent to assist with Medici com¬ 
mercial interests at Seville, Spain, where he met Christopher 
Columbus shortly after his return from discovering the New World. 
According to his own account, about which there is much skepti¬ 
cism, Vespucci participated in the explorer’s second expedition to 
the Caribbean. But this is unlikely, as his activities in Spain prior to 
1596 are well documented. 

Vespucci next claimed to have made a second voyage to the 
New World in 1497-1498, but no proof supports this beyond a sin¬ 
gle letter attributed to him. It is certain, however, that he embarked 
with Afonso de Ojeda (1460-ca. 1519) and Juan de la Cosa (d. 
1511), both veterans of the early Columbus voyages, on a new expe¬ 
dition to explore the mainland coast of Central and South America. 
Vespucci subsequently alleged that when the venture’s four ships 
became separated, and therefore reached the New World separately, 
he took his vessel southward as far as the mouth of the Amazon 
River and then turned north again to investigate the Venezuelan 
coast up to the islands of Aruba and Curasao, before rejoining 
Ojeda, Cosa, and the rest of their squadron. But his allegation is 
doubtful because his itinerary does not coincide with evidence of the 
voyage from other sources. 

The same problem clouds Vespucci’s account of his third expe¬ 
dition to the New World in 1501-1502, this time bearing a commis¬ 
sion from the Portuguese Crown, to follow up the discovery of Brazil 
by Pedro Alvarez Cabral (1467 or 1468-1520) a year before. The 
purpose was to determine whether the territory lay east or west of 
the demarcation line established by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). 
On this occasion, Vespucci claimed to have explored the South 
American coastline as far as 50° south latitude, which would have 
been the farthest point reached by any European mariner to date and 
just a few degrees of latitude north of the Antarctic Circle. Again, 
the sources disagree. 

Following his return to Europe, Vespucci moved back to Spain, 
where he made plans for a new expedition that never sailed. In 

Biographies: Personalities of the Age of Discovery 


1506, however, he was appointed the kingdom’s first pilot major by 
royal decree for the purpose of instructing navigators bound for the 
Indies. He held this position until his death on 22 February 1512. It 
is on the strength of his claim to have discovered the South Ameri¬ 
can continent in 1497-1498, prior to Columbus’s third voyage, that 
Vespucci owes his fame. For, on a map of the globe published in 

1507, in the belief that the explorer had actually found the southern 
part of the New World, the cartographer Martin Waldseemiiller 
inscribed the name America on the image of the new continent in 
honor of Amerigo Vespucci. 

Primary Documents 
Relating to Maritime 
Discovery and 

While some of the documents in this section are excerpts in transla¬ 
tion from other languages, and hence follow conventional English 
spelling and syntax, others have been excerpted from original sour¬ 
ces in English. In this case, the original spelling and syntax have 
been retained, while the use of “[sic]” or the correction of a word 
within brackets have been inserted only where it has appeared neces¬ 
sary, in order to clarify the language and avoid misunderstanding. 

The Portuguese Achievement 

Document 1 

The beginnings of Portuguese exploration and the epic voyage 
of Vasco da Gama are celebrated in a great national poem, The 
Lusiads, composed by Luiz Vaz de Camoes (ca. 1524-1580) while he 
was a soldier and sailor in Asia. From the following excerpt, it is 
clear that the hero of this epic is not Da Gama, however, but a 
nation—that is, Portugal, called “Lusitania” in the poem. Hence, Da 
Gama’s voyage, the explorations of his predecessors, and the tri¬ 
umphs of subsequent viceroys in Portuguese Asia were treated by 
Camoes simply as special aspects of the glory of his country. The 
epic reflects Portuguese exploration as a national enterprise. (Source: 
The Lusiads of Luis de Camoes, Leonard Bacon, trans. and ed. [New 
York: Hispanic Society of America, 1950], 3-6.) 

Arms, and those matchless chiefs who from 

Of Western Lusitania began [the shore] [Portugal] 

To track the oceans none had sailed before, 

Yet past Taprobanes far limit ran, [Ceylon; modern-day Sri Lanka] 


Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 

And daring every danger, every war, 

With courage that excelled the powers of Man, 

Amid remotest nations caused to rise 
Young empire which they carried to the skies; 

So too, good memory of those kings who went 
Afar, religion and our rule to spread; 

And who, through either hateful continent, 

Africa or Asia, like destruction sped; 

And theirs, whose valiant acts magnificent 
Saved them from the dominion of the dead, 

My song shall sow through the worlds every part, 

So help me this my genius and my art. 

Of the wise Greek, no more the tale unfold, [the poet Homer] 

Or the Trojan, and great voyages they made. 

Of Philip’s son and Trajan, leave untold [Alexander “the Great”; 

Emperor Trajan] 

Triumphant fame in wars which they essayed. 

I sing the Lusian spirit bright and bold, 

That Mars and Neptune equally obeyed. [gods of war and the sea] 
Forget all the Muse sang in ancient days, 

For valor nobler yet is now to praise.... 

And thou, the nobly born high guarantor 
Of our old Lusitanian free estate. 

And, no less certainly, fair omen for 
This little Christendom that shall be great, 

New terror for the lances of the Moor, 

Our Century’s miracle decreed by Fate, 

Vouchsafed the world by God, Who all commands, 

To give its better portion in God’s hands.... 

Hark! Thou shalt never see, for empty deed 
Fantastical and feigned and full of lies. 

Thy people praised, as with the foreign breed 
Of muses that still vaunt them to the skies. 

So great and true those acts that they exceed 
Utterly all such fabulous fantasies. 

And Rodomont and the vain Roger too, 

And Roland’s take, even if that were true. [chivalric hero of the 

Song of Roland] 

Instead I give you Nuno grim and dire, 

Whose prowess well for King and Realm was shown, 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 


With Egas and with Fuas. Homer’s lyre 
I covet, for the like of them alone. 

For the Twelve Peers, Magrigo I desire 
Among the Twelve of England shall be known, 

And offer likewise Gama’s noble name, [Vasco da Gama] 

Who for himself snatched all Aeneas’ fame. [Aeneas, the mythical 
hero of Troy who by tradition survived the Greek siege to found Rome] 

For if, in lieu of Charles the King of France [Charles VIII] 

Or Caesar, equal glory you would see, [Julius Caesar] 

Mark well the first Afonso then, whose lance 
Tarnished whatever foreign fame might be, 

Or him who left his land the inheritance 
Of freedom with his splendid victory, 

Or the second John Unconquered, or, in a word, [King John II] 

The fourth and fifth Afonsos, or the third. 

Nor shall my verses let their memory wane, 

Who once beyond the realms of morning went, 

And by their good swords could such height attain 
They kept your banner still armipotent: 

Pacheco strong, the dread Almeidas twain, [Francisco de Almeida 
and his son, who died in battle against Muslim naval forces] 
From whom yet Tagus grieves with sad lament, [Tagus River on 

which Lisbon sits] 

And Albuquerque stem and Castro brave, [Afonso de Albuquerque; Joao 
de Castro, Portuguese viceroy, 1545-1548, and a leading oceanographer] 
And all who ’scaped dominion of the grave. 

With them I chant, who cannot celebrate 
Your worth, great King, for I am not so bold, 

Take in your hand the bridle of the state. 

Making matter for an epic yet untold. 

They feel already the tremendous weight 

(The fear whereof makes the whole world grow cold) 

Of hosts and deeds as splendid as may be, 

On Afric’s coasts or on the Orient sea. 

Document 2 

In his Lendas da India , written sometime after 1514, Portuguese 
author Gaspar Correa (d. 1583?) chronicled Vasco Da Gama’s three 
voyages to Asia and his viceroyalty. Regarded by many historians as 


Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 

the fullest and most accurate record of Da Gama’s exploits, Correa’s 
account of the explorer’s first epic voyage to Calicut is highly 
detailed, and in his relation of Da Gama’s initial audience with the 
ruling Zamorin, Correa describes the opulence of Asia that so capti¬ 
vated Europeans of the day, while revealing the commercial motives 
of the Portuguese. (Source: Gaspar Correa, The Three Voyages of 
Vasco da Gama, and His Viceroyalty, Henry E. J. Stanley, trans. and 
ed. [London: Hakluyt Society, 1869], 193-196.) 

When the captain-major arrived [at the Zamorin’s palace], he was 
conducted through many courts and verandahs to a dwelling op¬ 
posite to that in which the King was, beyond, in another room 
arranged with silk stuffs of various colours, and a white canopy, 
which was of subtle workmanship and covered the whole room. 

The king was ... a very dark man, half naked, and clothed with 
white cloths from the middle to the knees: one of these cloths 
ended in a long point on which were threaded several gold rings 
with large rubies, which made a great show. He had on his left 
arm a bracelet above the elbow, which seemed like three rings to¬ 
gether, the middle one larger than the others, all studded with 
rich jewels, particularly the middle one which bore large stones 
which could not fail to be of very great value; from this middle 
ring hung ... a diamond of the thickness of a thumb; it seemed a 
priceless thing. Round his neck was a string of pearls about the 
size of hazel nuts, the string took two turns and reached to his 
middle; above it he wore a thin round gold chain which bore a 
jewel of the form of a heart, surrounded with larger pearls, and 
all full of rubies: in the middle was a green stone of the size of a 
large bean, which, from its showiness was of great price, which is 
called an emerald.... The King had long dark hair, all gathered 
up and tied on the top of his head with a knot made in it; and 
round the knot he had a string of pearls like those round his 
neck, and at the end of the string a pendant pearl pear-shaped 
and larger than the rest, which seemed a thing of great value. His 
ears were pierced with large holes, with many gold ear-rings of 
round beads.... Vasco da Gama said to the King, “Sire, you are 
powerful and very great above all the kings and rulers of India, 
and all of them are under your feet. The great King of Portugal 
my sovereign having heard of your grandeur ... had a great long¬ 
ing to become acquainted with you and to contract friendship 
with you as with a brother of his own, and with full and sincere 
peace and amity to send his ships with much merchandise, to 
trade and buy your merchandise, and above all pepper and drugs, 
of which there are none in Portugal; ... God has been pleased to 
bring me here where I now am, and, therefore, I truly believe that 
you are the king and ruler whom we came in search of ... ; and I 
tell you. Sire, that so powerful is the King of Portugal ... that 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 


after I shall have returned to him with your reply, and with this 
cargo which you are giving me, he will send hither so many fleets 
and merchandise, that they will carry away as many goods as are 
to be had in this city. To certify the truth of what I say, here is 
the letter of the King my sovereign signed with his hand and seal, 
and in it you will see his good and true words which he says to 
you.” Vasco da Gama then kissed the letter and placed it upon his 
eyes, and upon his head, and gave it to the King with his knee 
on the ground; the King took it and placed it on his breast with 
both hands, showing marks of friendship, and opened it and 
looked at it, then gave it to the overseer of the treasury ... to get 
it translated. 

Document 3 

Captured by the Portuguese in 1515, the city of Hormuz on the 
Persian Gulf was one of the richest and most strategic entrepots in 
the networks of Asian maritime trade. That its commercial impor¬ 
tance was recognized equally by visitors of all nationalities is clear 
from the descriptions left by the Chinese chronicler Ma Huan, who 
participated in the voyages of Zheng He; the Muslim Arab traveler, 
Ibn Battuta; and the English merchant, Ralph Fitch. Their separate 
accounts are remarkable for the similarity in their observations about 
the city, its markets, and its trade goods, and they attest, as well, to 
the wealth generated by maritime commerce throughout the Indian 
Ocean at Calicut, Malacca, and other trading ports. (Sources: Ibn 
Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, H. A. R. Gibb, trans. 
[London: Broadway Travellers Series, 1929]. 118-119; Ma Huan, 
Ying-yai Sheng-lan: The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores, J. V. G. 
Mills, trans. [Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1997], 165-172; “The 
Voyage of Mister Ralph Fitch merchant of London to Goa and Siam,” 
Richard Hakluyt, comp., Voyages and Discoveries: The Principal Navi¬ 
gations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, Jack 
Beaching, ed. [London: Penguin Books, 1972], 254.) 

Ibn Battuta on Hormuz ca. 1432 

I travelled next to the country of Hormuz. Hormuz is a town on 
the coast ... and in the sea facing it and nine miles from shore 
is New Hormuz, which is an island.... It is a large and fine city, 
with busy markets, as it is the port from which the wares from 
India and Sind are despatched to the Iraquis, Fars and Khurasan. 
The island is saline, and the inhabitants live on fish and dates 
exported to them from Basra.... Water is a valuable commodity 
in this island. 


Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 

Ma Huan on Hormuz in 1433 

[This port] lies beside the sea and up against the mountains. 
Foreign ships from every place and foreign merchants travelling 
by land all come to this country to attend the market and trade; 
hence the people of the country are all rich. The king of the 
country and the people of the country all profess the Muslim re¬ 
ligion; they are reverent, meticulous, and sincere believers; every 
day they pray five times, [and] they bathe and practise absti¬ 
nence. Their customs are pure and honest.... Their market¬ 
places have all kinds of shops, with articles of every description; 
only they have no wine-shops; [for] according to the law of the 
country wine-drinkers are executed.... In this place they have 
all the precious merchandise from every foreign country. Fur¬ 
ther, there are blue, red, and yellow [gem]stones, and red 
[rubies], cantharides [emeralds] ... , cat’s-eyes, diamonds, and 
large pearls ... , coral-tree beads, branches and stems, and 
golden amber, amber beads, rosary beads, wax amber, black 
amber, ... all kinds of beautiful jade utensils, crystal utensils, 
and ten kinds of flowered pieces of brocaded velvet, ... woollens 
of every kind, broadcloth, felt, various kinds of muslins, all 
kinds of foreign kerchiefs with blue and red silk embroidery, 
and other such kinds of things—all these are for sale. Camels, 
horses, mules, oxen, and goats are plentiful. 

Ralph Fitch on Hormuz in 1583 

[H] ormuz is an island in circuit about 25 or 30 miles and is the 
driest island in the world: for there is nothing growing in it but 
only salt; for their water, wood or victuals and all things neces¬ 
sary come out of Persia, which is about 12 miles from thence. 
All thereabouts be very fruitful, from whence all kind of victuals 
are sent into [H]ormuz. In this town are merchants of all 
nations, and many Moors and Gentiles. Here is very great trade 
of all sorts of spices, drugs, silks, cloth of silk, fine tapestry of 
Persia [i.e., carpets], great store of pearls, which come from the 
isle of Bahrein, and are the best pearls of all others and many 
horses of Persia, which serve all India. They have a Moor 
[Muslim] to their King which is chosen and governed by the 

The Voyages of Columbus 

Document 1 

When Christopher Columbus laid his Enterprise of the Indies 
before Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, he also presented a list of 
titles and rewards should he succeed in reaching Asia as promised. 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 


At first reluctant to endorse the plan or accept his demands, the 
monarchs eventually relented and, in a series of capitulations, con¬ 
ferred on Columbus the items he requested. Just how extensive these 
requests were is clear from the Granada Capitulations issued on 30 
April 1492. (Source: Repertorium Columbianum, vol. 2, The Book of 
Privileges Issued to Christopher Columbus by King Fernando and Queen 
Isabel, 1492-1502, Helen Nader, trans. and ed. [Berkeley: University 
of California Press, 1996], 66-69.) 

Sir Fernando and Lady Isabel, by the grace of God king and 
queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, Granada, [etc.].... 
Because you, Christopher Columbus, are going at our command 
with some of our ships and personnel to discover and acquire 
certain islands and mainland in the Ocean Sea, and it is hoped 
that, with the help of God, some of the islands and mainland in 
the Ocean Sea will be discovered and acquired by your com¬ 
mand and expertise, it is just and reasonable that you should be 
remunerated for placing yourself in danger for our service. 
Wanting to honor and bestow favor for these reasons, it is our 
grace and wish that you, Christopher Columbus, after having 
discovered and acquired these islands and mainland in the 
Ocean Sea, will be our admiral of the islands and mainland that 
you discover and acquire and will be our admiral, viceroy, and 
governor of them. You will be empowered from that time for¬ 
ward to call yourself Sir Christopher Columbus, and thus your 
sons and successors in this office and post may entitle them¬ 
selves sir, admiral, viceroy, and governor of them. You and your 
proxies will have the authority to exercise the office of admiral 
together with the offices of viceroy and governor of the islands 
and mainland that you discover and acquire. You will have the 
power to hear and dispose of all the lawsuits and cases, civil 
and criminal, related to the offices of admiral, viceroy, and gov¬ 
ernor, as you determine according to the law, and as the admi¬ 
rals of our kingdoms are accustomed to administer it. You and 
your proxies will have the power to punish and penalize delin¬ 
quents as well as exercising the offices of admiral, viceroy, and 
governor in all matters pertaining to these offices. You will enjoy 
and benefit from the fees and salaries attached, belonging, and 
corresponding to these offices, just as our high admiral enjoys 
and is accustomed to them in the admiralty of our kingdoms.... 
[Furthermore,] having discovered and acquired any islands and 
mainland in the Ocean Sea, once you or your designated repre¬ 
sentative have performed the oath [of loyalty] and formalities 
required in such cases, from then on you shall be accepted and 
regarded for the rest of your life, and your sons and successors 
after you forevermore, as our admiral of the Ocean Sea and vice¬ 
roy and governor of the islands and mainland that you, Sir 


Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 

Christopher Columbus, discover and acquire.... For with this 
writ we grant to you from now on the offices of admiral, viceroy, 
and governor as a hereditary right forevermore, and we grant 
you actual and prospective possession of them, as well as the 
authority to administer them and collect the dues and salaries 
attached and pertaining to each of them. 

Document 2 

Although Columbus composed a logbook of his initial voyage 
of discovery in 1492, that work has disappeared. What remains is a 
digest of the original manuscript made by Bartolome de las Casas for 
his History of the Indies, published in the sixteenth century. The fre¬ 
quent quotation of the explorer’s own words makes the digest the 
prime authority for the voyage itself and includes the account of 
Columbus’s first sighting of land in the Caribbean during the night 
of 11-12 October. (Source: Oliver Dunn and James E. Kelley Jr., 
trans. and eds., The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to 
America, 1492-1493. Abstracted by Fray Bartolome de las Casas 
[Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989], 57-65.) 

[Thursday, 11 October], The Admiral steered west-southwest. 

They took much water aboard, more than they had taken in the 
whole voyage. They saw petrels and a green bulrush near the 
ship. The men of the caravel Pinta saw a cane and a stick, and 
took on board another small stick that appeared to have been 
worked with iron, and a piece of cane, and other vegetation 
originating on land, and a small plank. The men of the caravel 
Nina saw other signs of land and a small stick loaded with bar¬ 
nacles. With these signs everyone breathed more easily and 
cheered up. On this day, up to sunset, they made 27 leagues. Af¬ 
ter sunset [Columbus] steered on his former course to the west. 

They made about 12 miles each hour and, until two hours after 
midnight, made about 90 miles.... And because the caravel 
Pinta was a better sailer and went ahead of the Admiral it found 
land and made the signals that the Admiral had ordered. A sailor 
named Rodrigo de Triana saw this land first, although the Admi¬ 
ral, at the tenth hour of the night, while he was on the stern 
castle, saw a light, although it was something so faint that he 
did not wish to affirm that it was land. But he called Pero 
Gutierrez, the steward of the king’s dias, and told him that there 
seemed to be a light, and for him to look: and thus he did and 
saw it. He also told Rodrigo Sanchez de Segovia, ... who saw 
nothing.... But the Admiral was certain that they were near 
land, because of which when they recited the Salve, which sail¬ 
ors in their own way were accustomed to recite and sing, all 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 


being present, the Admiral entreated and admonished them to 
keep a good lookout on the forecastle and to watch carefully for 

land-At two hours after midnight the land appeared, from 

which they were about two leagues distant. They hauled down 
all the sails ... , passing time until daylight Friday [12 October], 
when they reached an islet of the Lucayos, which was called 
Guanahani in the language of the Indians. Soon they saw naked 
people; and the Admiral went ashore in the armed launch, and 
Martin Alonso Pinzon and his brother Vicente Anes, who is cap¬ 
tain of the Nina. The Admiral brought out the royal banner and 
the captains two flags with the green cross, which the Admiral 
carried on all the ships as a standard, with an F and Y [the ini¬ 
tials for Ferdinand and Ysabela], and over each letter a crown, 
one on one side of the cross and the other on the other. Thus 
put ashore they saw many green trees and many ponds and 
fruits of various kinds. The Admiral called to the two captains 
and to the others who had jumped ashore and to Rodrigo 
Descobedo, the escrivano [recorder] of the whole fleet ... and he 
said that they should be witnesses that, in the presence of all, he 
would take possession of the said island for the king and for the 
queen his lords, making the declarations that were required dec¬ 
larations, and which at more length are contained in the testi¬ 
monials made there in writing. 

Document 3 

In 1502-1503, after returning from his third voyage to the New 
World, Christopher Columbus compiled his Libro de las profecias, a 
collection of biblical prophecies. Nowhere is the religious mysticism 
and apocalyptic vision of world history that motivated Columbus to 
undertake his voyages, according to his very traditional Christian 
outlook, more clearly expressed than in this unique work. (Source: 
The Libro de las profecias of Christopher Columbus, Delno C. West 
and August King, trans. and eds. [Gainesville: University of Florida 
Press, 1991], 105-111.) 

Most eminent rulers: At a very early age I began to navigate 
upon the seas, which I have continued to this day. Mine is a 
calling that inclines those who pursue it to desire to understand 
the world’s secrets. Such has been my interest for more than 
forty years, and I have sailed all that can be sailed in our day. I 
have had business and conversations with learned men among 
both laity and clergy, Latins and Greeks, Jews and Moslems, and 
many others of different religions. I prayed to the most merciful 
Lord concerning my desire, and he gave me the spirit and the 
intelligence for it. He gave me abundant skill in the mariner’s 
arts, an adequate understanding of the stars, and of geometry 


Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 

and arithmetic. He gave me the mental capacity and the manual 
skill to draft spherical maps, and to draw the cities, rivers, 
mountains, islands and ports, all in their proper places. During 
this time, I have searched out and studied all kinds of texts: 
geographies, histories, chronologies, philosophies and other sub¬ 
jects. With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind 
to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the 
[East] Indies, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the 
project. This was the fire that burned within me when I came to 
visit Your Highnesses. All who found out about my project 
denounced it with laughter and ridicule. All the sciences which 
I mentioned above were of no use to me. Quotations of learned 
opinions were no help. Only Your Majesties had faith and perse¬ 
verance. Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but 
also of the Holy Spirit who encouraged me with a radiance of 
marvelous illumination from his sacred Holy Scriptures, ... urg¬ 
ing me to press forward? The Lord purposed that there should 
be something clearly miraculous in this matter of the voyage to 
the Indies, so as to encourage me and others in the other matter 
of the household of God [i.e., a crusade to recapture Jerusalem 
and restore the ancient temple], I spent seven years here in your 
royal court discussing this subject with the leading persons in 
all the learned arts, and their conclusion was that all was in 
vain. That was the end, and they gave it up. But afterwards it all 
turned out just as our redeemer Jesus Christ had said, and as he 
had spoken earlier by the mouth of his holy prophets.... The 
Holy Scriptures testify ... that this world must come to an 
end.... From the creation of the world, ... until the advent of 
our Lord Jesus Christ there were five thousand, three hundred 
and forty-three years, and three hundred and eighteen days ... ; 
if we add to these years an additional one thousand, five hun¬ 
dred and one years of waiting, this makes a total of six thou¬ 
sand, eight hundred, forty-five years of waiting for the 
completion of the age. According to this calculation, only one 
hundred and fifty years are lacking for the completion of the 
seven thousand years which would be the end of the world 
according to [the Scriptures and early church fathers]. Our Sav¬ 
ior said that before the consummation of this world, first must 
be fulfilled all the things that were written by the prophets.... 
Already I pointed out that for the execution of the journey to 
the Indies I was not aided by intelligence, by mathematics or by 
maps. It was simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophe¬ 
sied, and this is what I desire to write in this book, so that the 
record may remind Your Highnesses, and so that you may 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 


Document 4 

In a letter dated 16 August 1494, Ferdinand and Isabella of 
Spain wrote to Columbus to express their interest in the new lands 
he had discovered across the Atlantic, and they gave instructions on 
how to treat the indigenous peoples. (Source: Repertorium Columbia- 
num, vol. 2, The Book of Privileges Issued to Christopher Columbus by 
King Fernando and Queen Isabel, 1492-1502, Helen Nader, trans. and 
ed. [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996], 99-100.) 

Sir Christopher Columbus, our high admiral of the islands of 
the Indies. We have seen your letters and the reports you sent 
us ... and have been very pleased to learn of all that you wrote 
us in them. We give thanks to our Lord for all of it because we 
hope that, with His help, your business will be the means by 
which our holy Catholic faith is augmented. One of the things 
that has pleased us the most about this is that it was conceived, 
begun, and accomplished by your command, work, and exper¬ 
tise. It seems to us that all of what you told us at the beginning 
could be achieved has turned out to be true, for the most part, 
as if you had seen it before telling us.... Nevertheless, we desire 
that you write us something more about how many islands have 
been found up to now. Of those islands you have named, what 
name has been given to each, because in your letters you give 
the names of some but not all of these, the names that the Indi¬ 
ans call them, how far it is from one to the other, all that you 
have found on each one of them, including what [the Indians] 
say is on them, and also what has been harvested from that 
which was sowed after you went there, because the season has 
passed when all sown crops ought to have been harvested. Most 
of all we want to know what the weather is like there in the 
months of the year, because it seems to us from what you 
describe that there is a great difference between the seasons 
there and here. Some wonder if in one year there are two win¬ 
ters and two summers.... Concerning the relations that you 
should establish with the people [local natives] you have there, 
we approve of what you have begun up to now. This is how you 
should continue to proceed, giving them the most satisfaction 
possible but not giving them any license to exceed the things 
they are supposed to do and what you order them to do on our 
behalf.... Regarding matters with Portugal, a valid treaty has 
been signed with their ambassadors that seemed to us the least 
disadvantageous. We are sending you a transcript of the terms 
that were made, so that you may be well informed in detail. 
Consequently, it is not appropriate to elaborate on it here. None¬ 
theless, we order and charge you to observe it fully, causing it to 
be observed by everyone, just as stipulated in the articles. It 
seems to us that the line, or border, that is to be made is an 


Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 

extremely difficult matter requiring great wisdom and trust. If 
possible, therefore, we would like you to locate it yourself and 
establish it with those who are to be involved on behalf of the 
king of Portugal.... From Segovia, on the sixteenth of August, 
[fourteen hundred] ninety-four. 

The Demarcation of the Globe 

Document 1 

In 1627 or 1628, a Carmelite missionary named Fray Antonio 
Vazquez de Espinosa (d. 1630) wrote a long manuscript titled Indiae 
descriptionem, first published in English in 1942. An extensive work, 
it provides a detailed description of Spain’s empire in the New 
World, based almost entirely on the author’s personal inspection. In 
Chapter 2 of Book 1, “In Which the World Is Stated to be Round,” 
Espinoza expressed the accepted geographical view of the earth’s 
spherical form, which had been proved decisively by successive voy¬ 
ages of exploration, though its full size was still unknown. (Source: 
Fray Antonio Vazquez de Espinoza, Compendium and Description of 
the West Indies, Charles U. Clark, trans. [Washington, DC: 
Smithsonian Institution, 1942], 3—4.) 

In order to continue with greater clearness and precision in the 
description I am writing of the West Indies, New Spain and its 
other dependencies, and the southern provinces of Peru, as well 
as the tribes which settled this New World and their different 
languages, it will be advisable to discuss the whole world in 
passing, since in practically every part of it the valiant Spaniards 
have conquered with invincible courage innumerable provinces, 
kingdoms, and nations, winning them for the monarchs of 
Spain.... It is well known and agreed that the world is round, 
since the curve the sun makes over it from E. to W. indicates 
the fact, even if it had not been described and discussed by so 
many geographers, mathematicians, and other writers; and that 
the parts of it are like the whole, is evident; that is shown out 
on the high seas, where only water and sky are seen, and the 
sea forms a curved horizon, visible as far as sight can reach, and 
the same is seen when one travels on land over a plain. The 
earth is the center of this visible universe, which is fixed and 
fastened upon itself in accordance with the disposition of Divine 
Providence, as is indicated by the Equinoxes.... In addition to 
this there are reckoned to be on earth five zones or bands: the 
two outermost very cold, consisting of the Arctic and Antarctic 
polar regions, N. and S.; the two temperate, where the sun 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 


reaches the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, keeping them as 
its limits, without being able to go beyond them; and the median 
zone of the earth, which is the equinoctial and is called the Tor¬ 
rid Zone. Since these are so well known and obvious, as are the 
parts of the world included in them which are inhabited, I 
would say that from the Torrid Zone to either of the Poles, Arc¬ 
tic or Antarctic, there are 90 degrees, of \l x ji leagues each; from 
one Pole to the other, 180 degrees; another 180 degrees from E. 
to W., measured in a straight line. Thus the universe contains 
360 degrees, of \7 l /i leagues each, making on a great circle 
6,300 leagues from one Pole to the other, and from E. to W.; as 
for the circumference, God alone can measure it, and not human 

Document 2 

The Treaty of Tordesillas, prompted by the results of Colum¬ 
bus’s first voyage, was concluded on 7 June 1494 to settle the con¬ 
tentious matter between Portugal and Spain of the possession of all 
newly discovered lands of the non-Christian world. Not satisfied 
with the original demarcation line established from north to south 
by Pope Alexander VI in the bull Inter Caetera issued in 1493, the 
two courts agreed to shift the line farther west. That agreement was 
ratified by the Spanish monarchs on 2 July 1494 and by the Portu¬ 
guese monarch on 5 September the same year. (Source: John Parry 
and Robert G. Keith, trans. and eds., New Iberian World: A Documen¬ 
tary History of the Discovery and Settlement of Latin America to the 
Early 17th Century, 5 vols. [New York: Times Books and Hector and 
Rose, 1984], 1:275-280.) 

Don Ferdinand and Dona Isabella, by the Grace of God king 
and queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, Granada, [etc.] ... to¬ 
gether with ... all members of our council, it was treated, 
adjusted, and agreed for us and in our name by virtue of our 
power with the most serene Dom John, by the grace of God, 
king of Portugal and of the Algarves on this side and beyond the 
sea in Africa, lord of Guinea, our very dear and very beloved 
brother, and ... his ambassadors, who came to us in regard to 
the controversy over what part belongs to us and what part to 
the said Most Serene King our brother, of that which ... is dis¬ 
covered in the ocean sea, ... [an agreement], the tenor of which, 
word for word, is as follows: 

In the name of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy 
Ghost, three truly separate and distinct persons and only one 
divine essence. Be it manifest and known to all who shall see 
this public instrument, that at the village of Tordesillas, on the 


Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 

seventh day of the month of June, in the year of the nativity of 
our Lord Jesus Christ 1494, ... it was declared by the ... repre¬ 
sentatives of the aforesaid King and Queen of Castile, Leon, Ara¬ 
gon, Sicily, Granada, etc., and of the aforesaid King of Portugal 
and the Algarves, etc.: 

[1] That, whereas a certain controversy exists between the 
said lords, their constituents, as to what lands, of all those dis¬ 
covered in the ocean sea up to the present day, the date of this 
treaty, pertain to each one of the said parts respectively; there¬ 
fore, for the sake of peace and concord, and for the preservation 
of the relationship and love of the said King of Portugal for the 
said King and Queen of Castile, Aragon, etc., it being the plea¬ 
sure of their Highnesses, they ... covenanted and agreed that a 
boundary or straight line determined and drawn north and 
south, from pole to pole, on the said ocean sea, from the Arctic 
to the Antarctic pole. This boundary or line shall be drawn 
straight, as aforesaid, at a distance of three hundred and seventy 
leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands.... And all lands, both 
islands and mainlands, found and discovered already, or to be 
found and discovered hereafter, by the said King of Portugal and 
by his vessels on this side of the said line ... , in either north or 
south latitude, on the eastern side of the said bound provided 
the said bound is not crossed, shall belong to, and remain in the 
possession and pertain forever to, the said King of Portugal and 
his successors. And all other lands, both islands and mainlands, 
found or to be found hereafter, ... which have been discovered 
or shall be discovered by the said King and Queen of Castile, 
Aragon, etc., and by their vessels, on the western side of the said 
bound, determined as above, after having passed the said bound 
toward the west, in either its north or south latitude, shall 
belong to, and remain in the possession of, and pertain forever 
to, the said King and Queen of Castile, Leon, etc., and to their 

Document 3 

In the following letter from the Holy Roman Emperor to the 
cardinal of Toledo, dated ca. 11 November 1540, Charles V (in his 
capacity as king of Spain) alerts the churchman of Jacques Cartier’s 
third voyage to Canada. In the letter, Charles asserts Spanish claims 
to the New World as established by the Treaty of Tordesillas against 
France’s intrusion on the principle that “prescription without posses¬ 
sion availeth nothing.” The letter also reveals the extent to which 
Spain and Portugal would go, combining forces to prevent other 
Europeans from challenging their respective monopolies in Asia and 
the Americas. (Source: Ramsay Cook, ed., The Voyages of Jacques 
Cartier [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993], 141-142.) 

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I have received today letters from my ambassador in France, in 
which he advises me that in spite of the efforts of the ambassa¬ 
dor of the most Serene King of Portugal ... respecting the 
licence that [Francis 1] gave to his subjects to proceed to the In¬ 
dies, a certain Jacques Cartier has received a commission to 
equip a fleet of ships to go to the New Lands.... And although I 
have ordered a reply to be sent to [the Spanish ambassador] to 
the effect that he do continue to insist and make fitting instance 
that the said licence be not proceeded with, being as it is, in 
direct contravention of the treaty between us and the said King 
of France, and contrary to the grace and concession granted [in 
1494] by the Apostolic See to the Kings of Castile and Portugal 
for the said conquest, it has appeared to me fitting to advise you 
thereof that you may consider and confer in Spain respecting 
such further measures it may now be desirable to take besides 
those already taken.... And it would be as well for you to send 
full information thereof to ... the King of Portugal ... that in 
the same way he may on his part take such measures as are 
required; and let the person who is in command of the 
[Spanish] fleet ... carry orders to unite with the fleet of the said 
King of Portugal and let each fleet give help and support to the 
other. And should they meet with the ships of the said Jacques 
[Cartier] or any other Frenchman sailing with a fleet bound to 
the said Indies, let them engage and destroy them, since the 
intention of these Frenchmen is known; and let all the men 
taken from their ships be thrown into the sea, not saving any 
one person, for this is necessary as a warning against the under¬ 
taking of similar expeditions. 

A New Continent? 

Document 1 

In a letter written to the duke of Milan on 18 December 1497, 
Raimondo de Raimondi de Soncino, a ducal envoy to England, 
described the results of John Cabot’s first voyage to the North Atlantic. 
In the document, the diplomat described how Cabot, following the 
example of Spain and Portugal, sailed in search of a westward route to 
China, which he claimed to have found. The letter also contained 
other details about what the explorer had seen, along with references 
to a second voyage. Clearly, Europeans had not yet accepted the fact 
that Columbus and his successors had found two new continents in 
the western Atlantic, rather than Asia. (Source: Public Record Office, 
Great Britain, Calendar of State Papers and manuscripts, relating to Eng¬ 
lish affairs, existing in the archives and collections of Milan, vol. 1, no. 
552 [London: Longman, 1912], 209-210.) 


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Perhaps the numerous occupations of your Excellency, it may 
not weary you to hear how his Majesty here [Henry VII] has 
gained a part of Asia, without a stroke of the sword. There is in 
this Kingdom a man of the people, Messer Zoane [John] Cabot 
by name, of kindly wit and a most expert mariner. Having 
observed that the sovereigns first of Portugal and then of Spain 
had occupied unknown islands, he decided to make similar ac¬ 
quisition for his Majesty. After obtaining patents that the effec¬ 
tive ownership of what he might find should be his, though 
reserving the rights of the Crown, he committed himself to for¬ 
tune in a little ship, with eighteen persons. He started from Bris¬ 
tol, a port on the west of this kingdom, passed Ireland, ... and 
then bore towards the north, in order to sail to the east.... After 
having wandered for some time he at length arrived at the main¬ 
land, where he hoisted the royal standard, and took possession 
for the king there.... They say that the land is excellent and 
temperate, and they believe that Brazil wood and silk are native 
there. They assert that the sea there is swarming with fish, 
which can be taken not only with the net, but in baskets let 
down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water.... But Messer 
Zoane has his mind set upon even greater things, because [on a 
second voyage] he proposes to keep along the coast from the 
place at which he touched, more and more towards the east, 
until he reaches an island which he calls Cipangu, situated in 
the equinoctial region, where he believes that all the spices of 
the world have their origin, as well as jewels. He says that on 
previous occasions he has been to Mecca, whither spices are 
borne by caravans from distant countries.... He therefore rea¬ 
sons that these things come from places far away from them, 
and so on from one to the other, always assuming that the earth 
is round, it follows as a matter of course that the last of all must 
take them in the north towards the west. He tells all this in such 
a way, and makes everything so plain, that I also feel compelled 
to believe him. What is much more, his Majesty, who is wise 
and not prodigal [with money], also gives him some credence, 
because he is giving him a fairly good provision [pension], since 
his return.... Before very long they say that his Majesty will 
equip some ships, ... and they will go to that country and form 
a colony. By means of this they hope to make London a more 
important mart for spices than Alexandria. 

Document 2 

Although modern historians doubt the authenticity of claims 
made by Amerigo Vespucci (1451-1512) that in 1501 he had sailed 
down the South American coastline from Brazil almost to the Antarc¬ 
tic Circle, his account was believed in his own time. Of particular 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 


importance was a pamphlet published in 1503, attributed to Ves¬ 
pucci, in which the term Mundus Novus (New World) was applied 
to the Americas for the first time. Written in the form of a letter to 
Lorenzo de’ Medici, it was not only read widely by Vespucci’s con¬ 
temporaries but also had a major influence on the reformation of 
geographical opinion about what Columbus had discovered across 
the Atlantic. Through Mundus Novus the notion gained ground that 
an entirely new world had been found and that Vespucci was the 
first to identify it. (Source: John H. Parry and Robert G. Keith, trans. 
and eds., New Iberian World: A Documentary History of the Discovery 
and Settlement of Latin America to the Early 17th Century, vol. 5, 
Coastlines, Rivers, and Forests [New York: Times Books and Hector 
and Rose, 1984], 18-22.) 

On a former occasion [1502?] I wrote to you at some length 
concerning my return from those new regions which we found 
and explored with the fleet, at the cost, and by the command of 
this Most Serene King of Portugal. And these we may rightly call 
a new world. Because our ancestors had no knowledge of them, 
and it will be a matter wholly new to all those who hear about 
them. For this transcends the view held by our ancients, inas¬ 
much as most of them hold that there is no continent to the 
south beyond the equator, but only the sea which they named 
the Atlantic; and if some of them did aver that a continent there 
was, they denied with abundant argument that it was a habitable 
land. But that this their opinion is false and utterly opposed to 
the truth, this my last voyage has made manifest; for in those 
southern parts I have found a continent more densely peopled 
and abounding in animals than our Europe or Asia or Africa, 
and, in addition, a climate milder and more delightful than in 
any other region known to us.... [The transatlantic voyage was 
long and stormy], but during these tempests of sea and sky, so 
numerous and so violent, the Most High was pleased to display 
before us a continent, new lands, and an unknown world.... 

We knew that land to be a continent and not an island both 
because it stretches forth in the form of a very long and unbend¬ 
ing coast, and because it is replete with infinite inhabitants. For 
in it we found innumerable tribes and peoples and species of all 
manner of wild beasts which are found in our lands and many 
others never seen by us concerning which it would take long to 
tell in detail.... We adopted the plan of following the coast of 
this continent toward the east and never losing sight of it. We 
sailed along until at length we reached a bend where the shore 
made a turn to the south; and from that point where we first 
touched land to that corner it was about three hundred 
leagues.... Now, where the said corner of land showed us south¬ 
ern trend of the coast we agreed to sail beyond it and inquire 


Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 

what there might be in those parts. So we sailed along the coast 
about six hundred leagues, and often landed and mingled and 
associated with the natives of those regions, and by them we 
were received in brotherly fashion.... Part of this new continent 
lies in the torrid zone beyond the equator toward the Antarctic 
pole, for it begins eight degrees beyond the equator. We sailed 
along this coast until we passed the tropic of Capricorn and 
found the Antarctic pole fifty degrees higher than that horizon. 
We advanced to within seventeen and a half degrees of the Ant¬ 
arctic circle.... I kept a diary of noteworthy things that if some¬ 
time I am granted leisure I may bring together these singular 
and wonderful things and write a cosmographical or geographi¬ 
cal work so that I may live with posterity and that the immense 
work of almighty God, partly unknown to the ancients, but 
known to us, may be understood. 

The Search for a Northwest Passage 

The existence of a Northwest Passage to Asia around the top of 
North America was the focus of much interest during the sixteenth 
and early seventeenth centuries. Many contemporaries were con¬ 
vinced that such a route existed and offered arguments in support of 
voyages to discover it. Although Sir Humphrey Gilbert was the lead¬ 
ing advocate of the idea, other Englishmen also urged their country¬ 
men to undertake the search, including Richard Willes, who wrote 
of “certain arguments to prove a passage by the Northwest” in the 
mid-1570s. (Source: Richard Hakluyt, Voyages and Discoveries: The 
Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English 
Nation, Jack Beaching, ed. [London: Penguin Books, 1972], 

Four famous ways there be spoken of to those fruitful and weal¬ 
thy islands, which we do usually call Moluccas, continually 
haunted for gain, and daily travelled for riches therein growing. 

These islands stand east from the meridian, distant almost half 
the length of the world, in extreme heat, under the equinoctial 
line, possessed of infidels and barbarians: yet great abundance of 
wealth there is painfully sought in respect of the voyage dearly 
bought, and from thence dangerously brought home. The Portu¬ 
guese voyage is very well understood of all men, and the south¬ 
eastern way round about Africa by the Cape of Good Hope more 
spoken of, better known and travelled, than it may seem needful 
to discourse thereof. The second way lieth southwest, between 
the West Indies or South America, and the south continent [i.e., 

Tierra del Fuego], through that narrow strait where Magellan 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 


first passed these latter years, leaving thereunto his name. The 
way no doubt the Spaniards would commodiously take, for that 
it lieth near unto their dominions there.... The third way by 
the northeast, beyond all Europe and Asia, that worthy and re¬ 
nowned knight Sir Hugh Willoughby sought to his peril, 
enforced there to end his life for cold, congealed and frozen to 
death. And truly this [route] consisteth rather in the imagination 
of geographers, than allowable either in reason, or approved by 
experience, as well it may appear by the unlikely sailing in that 
northern sea always clad with ice and snow, the foul mists and 
dark fogs in the cold climate, the little power of the sun to clear 
the air, the uncomfortable nights so near the Pole, five months 
long. A fourth way to go unto these aforesaid happy islands 
Molucca Sir Humphrey Gilbert a learned and valiant knight dis- 
courseth at large. But the way is dangerous, the passage doubt¬ 
ful, the voyage not thoroughly known.... Grant [however] the 
West Indies not to continue continent unto the Pole, grant there 
be a passage between these two lands, let the gulf lie nearer us 
than commonly in cards [i.e., charts] we find it set. Let the way 
be void of all difficulties, yet doth it not follow that we have free 
passage to Cathay? ... By the northeast there is no way, the 
southeast passage the Portuguese do hold as the lords of those 
seas. At the southwest Magellan’s experience hath taught us the 
eastern current striketh so furiously on that strait, and falleth 
with such force into that narrow gulf, that hardly any ship can 
return that way.... Mr. Frobisher, who lately through all these 
[Arctic] islands of ice and mountains of snow, passed that way, 
even beyond the gulf that tumbleth down from the north, and in 
some places though he drew one inch thick ice, as he returning 
in August did, yet came he safely home again.... Our travellers 
need not to seek their return by the northeast [therefore], nei¬ 
ther shall they be constrained ... either to attempt Magellan’s 
strait at the southwest, or to be in danger of the Portuguese for 
the southeast: they may return by the northwest, that same way 
they do go forth. 

The Pacific Is Sighted and Entered 

Document 1 

In the third book, written in 1516, of his great chronicle The 
Decades of the newe worlde or west India, Pietro Martire d’Anghiera 
recounted Balboa’s first sighting of the Pacific Ocean, taken from the 
explorer’s own letters of 1513, which described the event. (Source: 
Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, The Decades of the newe worlde or west 
India, Richard Eden, trans. [London: 1555] Third Decade, 90vo.-91.) 


Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 

Vasco Nunez [de Balboa] therefore, whether it were that he was 
impatient of idleness ... or lest any other should prevent him in 
so great a matter ... , or being moved by both these causes, ... 
took the adventure upon him with a few men to bring that to 
pass that which [the natives] thought could hardly have been 
done ... , and assured by the fame of greater plenty of gold, he 
gathered an army of a hundred fourscore and ten men. Thus 
being furnished and ready ... he departed from Darien ... , and 
therewith went forward on his journey by land toward the 
mountains.... By the help ... of [native] guides and labourers, 
with our carpenters, he passed over the horrible mountains and 
many great rivers lying in the way, ... [and] entered into a 
region called Quaraqua.... Here Balboa leaving in Quaraqua 
many of his soldiers (which by reason they were not yet accus¬ 
tomed to such travails and hunger, fell into divers diseases) took 
with him certain guides ... to conduct him to the tops of the 
mountains ... from which he might see the other sea so long 
looked for, and never seen before of any man coming out of our 
world. Approaching therefore to the tops of the mountains, he 
commanded his army to stay, and went himself alone to the top, 
as it were to take the first possession thereof. Where, falling 
prostrate upon the ground, and raising himself again upon his 
knees as is the manner of the Christians to pray, lifting up his 
eyes and hands toward heaven, and directing his face toward the 
new-found South Sea, he poured forth his humble and devout 
prayers before almighty God as a spiritual sacrifice with thanks¬ 
giving, that it had pleased his divine majesty to reserve unto that 
day the victory and praise of so great a thing unto him.... When 
he had thus made his prayers ... , he beckoned with his hand 
to his companions to come to him, showing them the great main 
sea heretofore unknown to the inhabitants of Europe, Africa, 
and Asia. Here again he fell to his prayers as before: desiring the 
almighty God and the blessed virgin to favour his beginnings, 
and to give him good success to subdue those lands to the glory 
of His holy name and increase of His true religion.... When 
[Balboa] had said these words, he commanded [his men] to 
raise certain heaps of stones ... [as] a token of possession. Then 
descending from the tops of the mountains, lest such as might 
come after him should [accuse] him of lying or falsehood, he 
wrote the king of Castile’s name here and there on the bark of 
the trees ... and raised heaps of stones all the way that he went, 
until he came to the region of the next [native] king toward the 
south, whose name was Chiapas. 

Document 2 

No sooner had Francis Drake entered the Pacific Ocean from 
the Strait of Magellan, than an “incredible storm” lasting fifty-two 
days blew his ship, the Golden Hinde, south and around the tip of 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 


Tierra del Fuego into an archipelago of unknown islands. The expe¬ 
rience led him to suspect that Tierra del Fuego was not the northern 
part of the Terra Australis Incognita as Magellan and others believed 
it was. (Source: Sir Francis Drake, The World Encompassed [(New 
York): Readex Microprint, 1966], 44-45.) 

The uttermost cape of headland of all these Islands, stands near 
in 56 deg. Without which there is no mainland], nor Island to 
be seen to the Southwards: but that the Atlantic Ocean, and the 
South Sea, meet in a most large and free scope. It hath been a 
dream through many ages, that these Islands have been a main, 
and that it hath been terra incognita ; wherein many strange mon¬ 
sters lived. Indeed it might truly, before this time, be called 
incognita, for howsoever the maps and general descriptions of 
cosmographers, either upon the deceiveable [i.e., deceptive] 
reports of other men, or the deceitful imaginations of themselves 
(supposing never herein to be corrected) have set it down, yet it 
is true that before this time, it was never discovered or certainly 
known by any traveler, that we have heard of. And here as in a 
fit place ... to remove that error in opinion, which hath been 
held by many, of the impossible return, out of Mar Del Zur [the 
South Sea], into the West Ocean [Atlantic], by reason of the 
supposed Eastern current and ... winds: which (say they) speed¬ 
ily carry any thither, but suffer no return. They are herein like¬ 
wise altogether deceived: for neither did we meet with any such 
current, neither had we any such certain winds, with any such 
speed to carry us through; but at all times, in our passage there, 
we found more opportunity to return back again into the West 
Ocean, than to go forward into Mar Del Zur, by means either of 
current or winds to hinder us, whereof we had experience more 
than we wished; ... for besides that it cannot be said, that there 
is one only passage, but rather innumerable; it is most certain, 
that [flowing through] all these Islands, there is one large and 
main sea, wherein if any will not be satisfied, nor believe the 
report of our experience and eyesight, he should be advised to 
suspend his judgment, till he have either tried it himself, by his 
own travel, or shall understand, by other travelers, more particu¬ 
lars to confirm his mind herein. 

Pacific Trade and Exploration, the Early Phase 

Document 1 

After cruising along the Pacific coast of South and Central 
America, preying upon Spanish ships and settlements, Francis Drake 
sailed past the shores of Mexico beyond the limits of Spanish control 
in search of a Northwest Passage and a return route home. Prevented 


Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 

by storms and shoals from continuing beyond modern-day 
California, however, he changed course westward across the Pacific to 
the Moluccas, but not before he had named and claimed the land of 
California for Elizabeth I and England. (Source: Sir Francis Drake, The 
World Encompassed [(New York): Readex Microprint, 1966], 80-82.) 

This country our [captain-[general named [New] Albion, and that 
for two causes; the one in respect of the white banks and cliffs, 
which lie toward the sea [like those of Dover]: the other, that it 
might have some affinity, even in name also, with our own coun¬ 
try, which was sometime so-called. Before we went from thence, 
our general caused to be set up a monument of our being there; 
as also of her majesty’s and [her] successors’ right and title to that 
kingdom, namely, a plate of brass, fast nailed to a great firm post; 
whereon is engraven her grace’s name, and the day and year of 
our arrival there, ... together with her highness’ picture and arms 
in a piece of sixpence current in English money, showing itself by 
a hole made of purpose through the plate: underneath was like¬ 
wise engraven the name of our general, etc. The Spaniards never 
had any dealing [with] or so much as set a foot in this country; 
the utmost of their discoveries reaching only to many degrees 
Southward of this place.... We departed [on] ... July 25 [1579], 

And our general now considering that the extremity of the cold 
not only continued but increased, ... and the wind blowing still 
from the Northwest, cut off all hope of finding a passage through 
these Northern parts, thought it necessary to lose no time; and 
therefore with general consent of all, bent his course directly to 
run with the Islands of the Moluccas. And so having nothing in 
our view but air and sea, without sight of any land for the space 
of full 68 days together, we continued our course through the 
main Ocean. 

Document 2 

In the account of his first circumnavigation, William Dampier 
described the Mexican port of Acapulco and the rich trade in Asian 
goods from the Philippines over well-established routes since 1571 
that was carried on there by means of the annual voyage of the 
Manila galleons. (Source: William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the 
World [New York: Dover, 1968], 170-171.) 

Acapulco is a pretty large Town, 17 deg. North of the Equator. It 
is the Sea-Port for the City of Mexico, on the West side of the 
Continent.... This Town is the only place of Trade on all this 
Coast.... The Ships that Trade hither are only three, two that 
constantly go once a Year between this and Manila in Luconia 
[Luzon], one of the Philippines Islands, and one Ship more every 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 


Year to and from Lima. This from Lima commonly arrives a little 
before Christmas; she brings them Quicksilver, Cacoa, and [sil¬ 
ver] Pieces of Eight. Here she stays till the Manila Ships arrive, 
and then takes in a Cargo of Spices, Silks, Calicoes, and Mus¬ 
lins, and other East-India Commodities, for the use of Peru, and 
then returns to Lima. This is but a small Vessel of twenty Guns, 
but the two Manila Ships are each said to be above 1000 Tons. 
These make their Voyages alternately, so that one or other of 
them is always at the [Philippines]. When either of them sets 
out from Acapulco, it is at the latter End of March, or the Begin¬ 
ning of April; she always touches to refresh at Guam, one of the 
Ladrone Islands, in about sixty Days space after she sets out. 
There she stays but two or three Days, and then prosecutes her 
Voyage to Manila, where she commonly arrives some time in 
June. By that time the other is ready to sail from thence, laden 
with East-India commodities. She stretcheth away to the North 
as far as 36 [deg.], or sometimes into 40 deg. of North 
Latitude], before she gets a Wind to stand over to the American 
Shore. She falls in first with the Coast of California, and then 
coasts along the Shore to the South again, and never misses a 
Wind to bring her away from thence quite to Acapulco. When 
she gets the length of Cape St. Lucas, which is the Southernmost 
Point of California, she stretches over to Cape Corrientes; ... 
from thence she coasts along till she comes to Sallagua, and 
there she sets ashore Passengers that are bound to the City of 
Mexico: From thence she makes her best way, coasting still along 
the Shore, till she arrives at Acapulco, which is commonly about 
Christmas, never more than eight or ten Days before or after. 
Upon the Return of this Ship to the [Philippines], the other with 
stayeth there till her Arrival, takes her turn back to Acapulco. 

Document 3 

Among other places encountered on his initial circumnavigation 
of the globe, William Dampier was aboard the first English ship to 
reach Australia, in January 1688. In his account of the voyage, he 
recorded his observations of the island-continent’s inhospitable coasts 
and stone-age native people. Though whether New Holland (as he 
called it) was the legendary Terra Australis Incognita, a separate con¬ 
tinent, or merely part of New Guinea had yet to be determined. 
(Source: William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World [New 
York: Dover, 1968], 310-312.) 

Being now clear of all the Islands [of southern Indonesia], we 
stood off South, intending to touch at New Holland, a part of 
Terra Australis Incognita, to see what that Country would afford 
us.... New Holland is a very large Tract of Land. It is not yet 


Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 

determined whether it is an Island or a main Continent; but I 
am certain that it joins neither to Asia, Africa, nor America. This 
part of it that we saw is all low even Land, with sandy Banks 
against the Sea, only the Points are rocky— The Land is of a 
dry sandy Soil, destitute of Water, except you make Wells, yet 
producing divers sorts of Trees; but the Woods are not thick, 
nor the Trees very big.... We saw no Trees that bore Fruit or 
Berries. We saw no sort of Animal, nor any Track of Beast, but 
once.... Here are a few small Land-birds, but none bigger than 
a Black-bird; and but few Sea-fowls. Neither is the sea very plen¬ 
tifully stored with Fish, unless you reckon the Manatee and Tur¬ 
tle as such. Of these Creatures there is plenty; but they are 
extraordinarily shy; though the Inhabitants cannot trouble them 
much having neither Boats nor Iron. The Inhabitants of this 
Country are the miserablest People in the World.... [They] have 
no Houses, and skin Garments, Sheep, Poultry, and Fruits of the 
Earth, Ostrich Eggs, etc.,.... And setting aside their Humane 
Shape, they differ but little from Brutes. They are tall, straight¬ 
bodied, and thin, with small long Limbs. They have great Heads, 
round Foreheads, and great Brows.... They have great Bottle- 
Noses, pretty full Lips, and wide Mouths.... They are long- 
visaged, and of a very unpleasing Aspect, having no one graceful 
Feature in their Faces.... The Colour of their Skins ... is Coal- 
black, like that of the Negroes of Guinea. They have no sort of 
Clothes, but a piece of the Rind of a Tree tied like a Girdle 
about their Waists, and a handful of long Grass, or three or four 
small green Boughs full of Leaves, thrust under their Girdle, to 
cover their Nakedness. 

Document 4 

In 1712, the privateer Woodes Rogers published an account of 
his voyage round the world between 1708 and 1711. Although his 
expedition contributed nothing to Pacific exploration or geographic 
knowledge of the globe, one event of interest was his rescue of the 
Scottish seaman Alexander Selkirk, who had been cast away on Juan 
Fernandez Island during William Dampier’s second circumnavigation 
a few years before. Rogers’s description clearly gave the writer Daniel 
Defoe the raw material for his 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. (Source: 
Robert C. Leslie, ed., Life aboard a British Privateer in the Time of 
Queen Anne. Being the Journal of Captain Woodes Rogers, Master 
Mariner [London: Diploma Press, 1894], 57-65.) 

Immediately our pinnace return’d from the shore, and brought 
abundance of craw-fish with a man cloth’d in goat-skins, who 
look’d wilder than the first owners of them. He had been on the 
island four years and four months, being left their by Captain 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 


Stradling in the ship Cinque Ports. His name was Alexander 
Selkirk, a Scotchman, who had been master of the Cinque Ports, a 
ship that came here last with Capt. [William] Dampier.... The 
reason of his being left here was a difference betwixt him and 
his captain [Stradling], When left, he had with him his clothes 
and bedding, with a firelock [musket], some powder, bullets, 
and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, some practical 
pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books. He 
diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for 
the first eight months had much ado to bear up against melan¬ 
choly, and the terror of being alone in such a desolate place. He 
built two huts ... cover’d them with long grass, and lin’d them 
with the skins of goats ... , he got fire by rubbing two sticks of 
piemento wood together on his knees.... [For food he ate] 
goat’s flesh, of which he made very good broth, ... ; he kept an 
account of 500 that he kill’d while there, and caught as many 
more, which he marked on the ear and let go. When his powder 
fail’d he took them by speed of foot; for his way of living, and 
continued exercise of walking and running, clear’d him of all 
gross humours, so that he run with wonderful swiftness through 
the woods, and up the rocks and hills.... [He also had] plenty 
of good turnips which had been sow’d there by Captain Damp- 
ier’s men, and have overspread some acres of ground.... When 
his clothes wore out he made himself a coat and cap of goat¬ 
skins, which he stitch’d together with little thongs of the same 
that he cut with his knife.... At his first coming on board us, he 
had so much forgot his language for want of use, that we could 
scarce understand him, for he seemed to speak his words by 
halves.... And by this we may see, that solitude and retirement 
from the world is not such an unsufferable state of life as most 
men imagine.... We may perceive also by his story the truth of 
the maxim “that necessity is the mother of invention,” since he 
found means to supply his wants in a very natural manner, so as 
to maintain life. 

Document 5 

Although during the first Kamchatka Expedition, Vitus Bering 
had found no land connection between Asiatic Russia and Alaska, 
the Russian Admiralty was not fully convinced. Hence, in 1732 the 
Danish-born captain was dispatched on a second expedition to the 
same region, in order to verify his earlier report and make further 
explorations. The following is an excerpt from his new instructions. 
(Source: Basil Dmytryshyn et al., trans. and eds., Russian Penetration 
of the North Pacific Ocean, 1700-1797 [Eugene: Oregon Historical So¬ 
ciety Press, 1988], 96-97.) 


Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 

In accordance with the instructions from His Imperial Majesty, 
Peter the Great, ... instructions which he personally gave to 
Captain Commander [Vitus] Bering while Bering was in St. 
Petersburg, the expedition made a search to find whether the 
land of Kamchatka might be joined to America. However, as 
Bering reports, he followed that instruction and sailed along the 
land from Kamchatka north and east to 67° latitude, and as he 
had indicated on the map he prepared in conjunction with that 
expedition, there is no joining of the land in that latitude with 
the coast of America.... Nevertheless, it must be strongly 
emphasized that even though he suggests there is no juncture, 
this has not been proven and should not be accepted as fact. 
Also, it is possible to voyage along the [Siberian] coast from the 
Ob River to the Lena and beyond. Nothing is known about some 
of these places, and consequently it is impossible to describe 
them precisely because there are no reliable maps or reports. 
Further, no observations or descriptions have been made about 
the islands near Japan and a route to the east. Consequently, to 
fulfill the desire of His [late] Imperial Majesty [Peter] and to 
bring benefit to the Empire ... , the Admiralty College believes 
with Captain Commander Bering that ... a detailed observation 
and search should be undertaken, even though Bering has 
shown that the coast of Kamchatka does not appear to be joined 
to the coast of America. This should nevertheless be studied in 
detail, and the American coast should be visited by a naval expe¬ 
dition and explored as thoroughly as possible. 

Pacific Exploration in the Eighteenth Century 

Document 1 

Although not the discoverer of Tahiti, Louis de Bougainville’s 
account of the island and its inhabitants during his voyage of 1767 
1778 is noteworthy for its almost utopian tone. Educated in the clas¬ 
sics of ancient Greece and Rome, and imbued with Enlightenment 
ideas of the Noble Savage who lives in harmony with nature, Bou¬ 
gainville’s praise of Tahiti and its people borders on the lyric. Cap¬ 
tain James Cook’s subsequent account of the island and its culture 
offered readers a far greater degree of reality, to be sure, but Bougain¬ 
ville’s description reflected the impression formed by the earliest visi¬ 
tors of Tahiti as the nearest place to paradise on earth. Hence, he 
named the island New Cythera after the birthplace of Aphrodite, the 
Greek goddess of love. (Source: John Dunmore, trans. and ed., The 
Pacific Journal of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, 1767-1768 [London: 
Hakluyt Society, 2002], 72-73.) 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 


Nature has placed [Tahiti] in the finest climate in the world, 
embellished it with the most attractive scenery, enriched it with 
all her gifts, filled it with handsome, tall and well-built inhabi¬ 
tants. She herself has dictated its laws, they follow them in peace 
and make up what may be the happiest society on this globe. 
Lawmakers and philosophers, come and see here all that your 
imagination has not been able even to dream up. A large popula¬ 
tion, made up of handsome men and pretty women, living to¬ 
gether in abundance and good health, with every indication of 
the greatest amity, sufficiently aware of what belongs to the one 
and the other for there to be that degree of difference in rank 
that is necessary for good order, not knowing enough about it 
for there to be any rogues or poor people, maintaining good 
order and works of public needs.... Having an elementary 
knowledge of those crafts that are adequate for men who still 
live in a state close to nature, working but little, enjoying all the 
pleasures of society, ... indeed of love, the only God to whom I 
believe these people offer any sacrifices.... This people possesses 
the gaiety of happiness ... Men have several wives and girls all 
the men they want. We have seen children enjoying equally the 
care of the father or the mother. This nation’s customs are 
enhanced by the greatest cleanliness.... I do not know whether 
they know war with strangers.... All they need are the fruits 
which the soil liberally grants them without any cultivation, any¬ 
thing else, which would attract us, would bring upon them all 
the evils of the iron age. Farewell happy and wise people, may 
you always remain what you are. I shall never recall without a 
sense of delight the brief time I spent among you and, as long as 
I live, I shall celebrate the happy island of Cythera. It is the true 

Document 2 

A common complaint among all European voyagers to Polyne¬ 
sia was the constant theft by the islanders of tools, weapons, scien¬ 
tific equipment, and anything else they could find. Captain James 
Cook found the constant pilfering especially irksome and endeavored 
to halt it any way he could. The following excerpt from his first en¬ 
counter with Tahiti illustrates his aggravation. In the end, his efforts 
to recover a stolen ships launch from the natives of Hawaii in 1779 
cost him his life. (Source: Philip Edwards, ed., The Journals of Cap¬ 
tain Cook [London: Penguin, 1999], 41.) 

Friday Apl. 14th [1769], This morning we had a great many 
Canoes about the Ship, the Most of them came from the west¬ 
ward but brought nothing with them but a few Cocoa-nuts etc. 

Two that appear’d to be Chiefs we had on board together with 


Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 

several others for it was a hard matter to keep them out of the 
Ship as they clime like Munkeys, but it was still harder to keep 
them from Stealing but every thing that came within their reach, 
in this they are prodiges [prodigious] expert. 1 made each of the 
two Chiefs a present of a Hatchet things that they seem’d mostly 
to Value. As soon as we had partly got clear of these people, I 
took two Boats and went to the Westward all the Gentlemen 
being along with me, my design was to see if there was not a 

more comm[o]dious Harbour_ [At] the first place we landed ... 

the Natives Flock’d about us in great Numbers and in as friendly 
a Manner as we could wish, only that they shew’d a great incli¬ 
nation to pick our pockets.... Dr. Solander [a naturalist] and 
Dr. Munkhouse [the ship’s surgeon] had each of them their 
pockets pick’d the one of his spy glass and the other of his snuff 
Box, as soon as Lycurgus [a chief] was made acquainted with 
the theft he dispers’d the people in a Moment.... ; he seem’d 
very much concern’d for what had happend [sic] and by way of 
recompence offer’d of any thing that was in his House, but we 
refuse’d to except [sic] of any thing and made signs to him that 
we only wanted the [stolen] things [back] again. 

Document 3 

Captain Cook was always interested in the native cultures he 
encountered, which he described in detail and with much sensitivity. 
In the following excerpt, he gives an account of his first luau on 
Tahiti in 1769 and in particular of the preparation of the food that 
was eaten in typically Polynesian style. (Source: Philip Edwards, ed., 
The Journals oj Captain Cook [London: Penguin, 1999], 59-60.) 

[A Tahitian woman named Obarea brought the English officers 
presents of food] which Consisted of a Hog a Dog Some Bread 
fruit & Plantains. We refused to except [sic] of the Dog as being 
an animal we had no use for, at which she seem’d a little sur¬ 
prised and told us that it was very good eating and we very soon 
had an opportunity to find that it was so, for ... [the dog was] 
immediatly dress’d by some of the Natives in the following man¬ 
ner. They first make a hole in the ground about a foot deep in 
which they made a fire and heated some small Stones, while this 
was doing the Dog was Strangle’d and the hair got off by laying 
him frequently upon the fire, and as clean as if it had been 
scalded off with hot water, his intrails were taken out and the 
whole washed clean, and as soon as the stones and hole was suf¬ 
ficiently heated, the fire was put out, and part of the Stones were 
left in the bottom of the hole, upon these stones were laid Green 
leaves and upon them the Dog together with the entrails. These 
were likwise cover’d with leaves and over them hot stones, and 

Primary Documents Relating to Maritime Discovery and Exploration 


then the whole [sic] was close cover’d with mould [earth]; after 
he had laid here about 4 hours, the Oven (for so I must call it) 
was open’d and the Dog taken out whole and done, and it was 
the opinion of every one who taisted of it that they Never eat 
sweeter meat, we therefore resolved for the future not to despise 
Dogs flesh, ft is in this manner that the Natives dress, or Bake 
all their Victuals that require it, Flesh, Fish and fruit. 

Document 4 

Unlike Bougainville, who viewed the Tahitians as Noble Savages 
living in an idyllic state of Nature, James Cook described them as 
they actually were, but with great sensitivity. And although he found 
much to criticize in Polynesian culture, he also found much to 
praise. This makes his lamentations in 1773 during his second voy¬ 
age all the more poignant about the ill effects produced by repeated 
native contact with Europeans, which he already saw was corrupting 
Tahitian society. Of particular concern was the collapse of native vir¬ 
tue and the consequent spread of venereal disease (first introduced 
by Bougainville’s crew), as the Tahitians’ relaxed view of sexual rela¬ 
tions, which was altogether different from European ideas of moral¬ 
ity, at first delighted English and French sailors who visited the 
island, but led to a loss of Tahitian innocence in very few years’ time 
to Cook’s deep regret. (Source: Phillip Edwards, ed., The Journals of 
Captain Cook [London: Penguin, 1999], 276-277.) 

During our short stay in [Queen Charlotte’s] Sound I have 
observed that this Second Visit of ours hath not mended the 
morals of the Natives of either Sex, the Women of this Country 
1 always looked upon to be more chaste than the generality of 
Indian Women, whatever favours a few of them might have 
granted to the crew of the Endeavour [on his first voyage] it was 
generally done in a private manner and without the men seem¬ 
ing to interest themselves in it, but now we find the men are the 
chief promoters of this Vice, and for a spike nail or any other 
thing they value will oblige their Wives and Daughters to prosti¬ 
tute themselves whether they will or no and that not with the 
privicy decency seems to require, such are the concequences of 
a commerce with Europeans and what is still more to our Shame 
civilized Christians, we debauch their Morals already too prone 
to vice and we interduce [introduce] among them wants and 
perhaps diseases which they never before knew and which 
serves only to disturb that happy tranquility they and their fore 
Fathers had injoy’d. If any one denies the truth of this assertion 
let him tell me what the Natives of the whole extent of America 
have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans. 

Glossary of Selected 


Archipelago. Can refer to a sea with many islands, such as the Aegean Sea 
near Greece, or to any group or chain of islands. 

Austral. Used rarely, this term relates to the south; hence, Terra Australis, 
Australasia, and Australia. 

Bight. A large shallow indentation in the coastline, such as the Great Aus¬ 
tralian Bight, which is different from a bay, defined as a gradual inden¬ 
tation of the sea into a coastline (e.g., Hudson Bay, the Bay of Bengal). 

Cape. A point of land that juts out sharply seaward; hence, the Cape of 
Good Hope (at the southern tip of Africa) and Cape Horn (at the 
southern tip of South America). 

Caravel. A small, light, reasonably fast sailing vessel capable of transoceanic 
travel. Developed by the Portuguese and Spaniards during the fif¬ 
teenth and early sixteenth centuries, caravels were used by mariners 
such as Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, and Christopher Columbus 
in their explorations. 

Cartography. The science and art of making maps and charts both for land 
and sea; hence, “cartographer,” one who draws such charts and maps. 

Chart. A map of the sea and adjacent land for the use of navigators at sea, 
providing such details as are necessary for safe navigation; especially 
the outline of coasts, landmarks, and seamarks, and soundings for 
depth, tides, and currents. 

Chronometer. A very accurate timepiece, with a nearly constant rate, that 
was specially adapted and mounted for maritime use aboard ships. 
Invented by John Harrison in 1761, a chronometer suitable for service 
at sea was not developed until 1766. 

Coast. The meeting of land and sea, which is considered to be the bound¬ 
ary of the land at its shoreline. 

Collier. A coal ship, the size of a bark and stoutly built, with a distinctive 
shape and a large hold for cargo. HMS Endeavour, Cooks vessel on his 
first voyage, was a collier specially refitted with square-rigging on all 


Glossary of Selected Terms 

its masts for his expedition to the Pacific. It was well suited for the pur¬ 
poses for which it was intended. 

Commission. A grant of royal authority to hold military or naval rank and 
take command, signed by the monarch and awarded to an officer; in 
the United States, a commission is issued by Congress. 

Dead Reckoning. Before the advent of reliable navigational instruments, 
mariners such as Christopher Columbus plotted a ship’s geographic 
location in the open sea from the last fixed or observed position and 
based solely on the distance sailed along a course as steered by the 

Estado da India. State of India, the term used by the Portuguese during the 
late fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries for their settlements, 
factories, and colonies in the Indian Ocean basin from East Africa to 
the South China Sea and administered from the port of Goa. 

Factory. An overseas trading post or station, often fortified against attack. 
Generally located along the east and west coasts of Africa, in India, 
and in Indonesia, the word derives from feitoria, first coined by the 

Flora and Fauna. Refers to the plant life (flora) and animal life (fauna) of a 

Frigate. A full-rigged ship of war, mounting cannons on a single gundeck, as 
well as on the forecastle and poop deck. Fast, maneuverable, and smaller 
than a ship of the line (or battleship of two or three gun decks), these 
vessels were used usually for scouting, signaling, and so on, as adjuncts 
to a battle fleet. Occasionally used for exploration, such as Bougainville’s 
circumnavigation of the globe, they were ill suited to the task. 

Galleon. A large, well-armed sailing vessel, developed in sixteenth-century 
Europe and used in most naval forces, but especially those of Spain. A 
specialized vessel, stoutly constructed and relatively maneuverable, it 
was ideal for transoceanic sailing in the Atlantic and Pacific (e.g., the 
Manila galleon). It was also the forerunner of the ship of the line war¬ 
ships developed in the seventeenth century. 

Gulf. Refers to a large expanse of sea that is partly enclosed by land, such 
as the Gulf of Mexico. 

Isthmus. A narrow neck of land that connects two larger territories or con¬ 
tinents (e.g., the Isthmus of Panama, which links Central and South 

Fandfall. Refers to the first sighting of land after an ocean crossing. 

Fatitude. Defined as the measure of angular distance in degrees, minutes, 
and seconds of an arc from 0° to 90° north or south of the equator, 
but running parallel to it. 

Fogbook. A chronological record of events during a voyage that is kept by 
the ship’s captain and includes such details as navigational data (e.g., 
the ship’s speed, geographic position, wind direction, and weather 

Glossary of Selected Terms 


conditions), as well as observations about land, people, and so on, 
encountered. The captain’s log also records his praise for, or displeas¬ 
ure with, the conduct of individual seamen. 

Longitude. The angular distance between the prime meridian at Greenwich, 
England, and the meridian of the observer. Longitude is measured in 
degrees, minutes, and seconds (for greater accuracy) along the equator 
and is designated either east or west according to whether the ob¬ 
server is east or west of Greenwich. Meridian is defined as a semi¬ 
great circle joining the poles (and thus perpendicular to the equator) 
passing though any given position. The meridians, which are 15° 
apart at the equator but taper toward both poles, also indicate the 
twenty-four time zones of the globe. 

Melanesia. One of three divisions of Oceania, comprising the island groups 
northeast of Australia, notably the Louisiades, the Solomons, the Santa 
Cruz chain, the Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia, and the Fijian 

Micronesia. One of the three division of Oceania, comprising various small 
islands located northeast of Australia, but northwest of Melanesia, 
including the Mariana, Carolina, Pelew, Marshall, and Gilbert groups. 

Monsoon. Seasonal winds that blow over the Indian Ocean, South China 
Sea, and adjacent waters. According to the rhythm of the monsoons, 
which shift direction with remarkable regularity and thus determine 
when it is possible to sail west or east in maritime Asia, the Northeast 
monsoon blows from September/October to April in the China seas, 
and November to March in the Indian Ocean. The Southwest mon¬ 
soons blow from May to August/September in the China seas, and 
from May to September in the Indian Ocean. 

Oceania. Refers to the islands and island groups of the entire South Pacific 
and adjacent seas, divided into three major zones: Melanesia, Micro¬ 
nesia, and Polynesia. 

Peninsula. A piece of land, either large or small, that is almost surrounded 
by water and projects far into the sea (e.g., Cape York Peninsula in 
northern Australia). 

Polynesia. One of three divisions of Oceania, comprising the major island 
groups due east of Australia, including the Hawaiian chain, Tahiti, the 
Tuamotus, the Tongas, and New Zealand. 

Privateer. A privately owned vessel, other than a naval warship, whose own¬ 
ers have been granted a commission to use the craft as a ship of war 
in order to attack and capture the vessels or coastal settlements of an 
enemy state in wartime. Also a sailor on such a ship. 

Reconquista. The reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from Moorish or Is¬ 
lamic rule by the Christian forces of the eventual monarchs of Portu¬ 
gal, Castile, and Aragon. 


Glossary of Selected Terms 

Strait. A narrow passage of water between two landmasses, whether conti¬ 
nents or islands, that connects two seas or large bodies of water (e.g., 
Strait of Magellan, Strait of Malacca). 

Trade Winds. Almost permanent, steady winds broadly within the Tropics, 
which blow from the northeast in the northern hemisphere and from 
the southeast in the southern hemisphere, in the lower latitudes. They 
are caused by the normal flow of air from the poles toward the sun- 
heated equator, where they are deflected by the rotation of the earth. 
Because they were important for maritime commerce during the age 
of sail, they were given the name trade winds. 



Primary Sources in English Translation 

By far the richest sources of primary accounts for European exploration on 
land and by sea from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century can 
be found in the multivolume series published by the Hakluyt Society in Lon¬ 
don, named for the sixteenth-century compiler of English voyages, Richard 
Hakluyt. The society has been producing translations of travel accounts ever 
since its foundation in 1846. The material is vast, more than two hundred 
editions in more than 350 volumes, and covers all corners of the globe. 

Titles of particular importance to the voyages described in this book 
are arranged below by nationality. 

Portuguese Voyages 

Bacon, Leonard, trans. and ed. The Lusiads of Luis de Camoes. New York: 
Hispanic Society of America, 1950. The English translation of the great 
epic poem composed in the sixteenth century to celebrate Portuguese 
achievements in Asia from Prince Henry to Afonso de Albuquerque. 
Blake, John W., ed. Europeans in West Africa, 1450-1560. 2 vols. London: 
Hakluyt Society, 1942. An excellent collection of primary documents 
from Portuguese, Castilian, and English sources. 

Correa, Gaspar. The Three Voyages of Vasco da Gama, and His Viceroyalty. 
Translated and edited by Henry E. J. Stanley. London: Hakluyt Society, 
1869. Da Gama’s three voyages to India, as recorded by a contempo¬ 
rary chronicler attached to the Portuguese court. 

Spanish Voyages 

d’Anghiera, Pietro Martire. The Decades of the newe worlde or west India. 
Translated by Richard Eden. London: 1555; reprint [New York]: 


Annotated Bibliography 

Readex Microprint, 1966. A facsimile edition of the first English trans¬ 
lation of the initial three Decades of Anghiera’s chronicle of Spain’s 
discoveries in and conquest of the New World. 

Arber, Edward, trans. The First Three English Books on America. Westmin¬ 
ster: A. Constable, 1895. Three early accounts of the New World, 
written by Richard Eden, Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, and Sebastian 

Beals, Herbert R., trans. and ed. Juan Perez on the Northwest Coast: Six Docu¬ 
ments of His Expedition in 1774. Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 
1989. A collection of reports, letters, and accounts of Spanish explora¬ 
tion in the Pacific northwest in the late eighteenth century. 

Cutter, Donald C., ed. Journal of Tomas de Suria of His Voyage with 
Malaspina to the North-West Coast of America in 1791. Translated by 
Henry R. Wagner. Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1980. An account 
of Malaspina’s voyage by an artist-engraver attached to the expedition. 

Dunn, Oliver, and James E. Kelley Jr., trans. and eds. The Diario of 
Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America, 1492-1493. Abstracted 
by Fray Bartolome de las Casas. Norman: University of Oklahoma 
Press, 1989. Of the various translations of Columbus’s first voyage to 
and discovery of the New World, this is the best, and provides the 
text both in English and in Spanish. 

MacNutt, Francis A., trans. and ed. De orbe novo: The Eight Decades of Peter 
Martyr d’Anghera. 2 vols. New York: G. P Putnam’s Sons, 1912. A 
modern translation of Pietro Martire d’Anghiera’s chronicle of Spain’s 
discovery and conquest of the New World. 

Markham, Sir Clements, trans. and ed. The Voyages of Pedro Fernandez de 
Quiros. 2 vols. London: Hakluyt Society, 1904. The account of the voy¬ 
ages of the sixteenth-century Spanish explorer into the Pacific. 

[Mendaha, Alvaro de]. The Discovery of the Solomon Islands. Translated and 
edited by Lord Amherst of Hackney and Basil Thomson. 2 vols. Lon¬ 
don: Hakluyt Society, 1901. The account of the Spanish discovery of 
the Solomon chain by the early Spanish explorer in the Pacific. 

Mozino, Jose Mariano. Noticias de Nutka: An Account of Nootka Sound in 
1792. Translated and edited by Iris H. Wilson. Seattle: University of 
Washington Press, 1970. This description of Nootka Sound on Van¬ 
couver Island was written by the official botanist attached to the expe¬ 
dition of Bodega y Quadra to the Pacific northwest. 

Nader, Helen, trans. and ed. The Book of Privileges Issued to Christopher 
Columbus by King Fernando and Queen Isabel, 1492-1502. Vol. 2 of 
Repertorium Columbianum, Geoffrey Simcox, gen. ed. Berkeley: Univer¬ 
sity of California Press, 1996. A collection of documents related to the 
extensive privileges granted to Columbus by the Spanish monarchs in 
reward for his discoveries. 

Annotated Bibliography 


Parry, John H., and Robert G. Keith, trans. and eds. New Iberian World: A 
Documentary History of the Discovery and Settlement of Latin America to 
the Early Seventeenth Century. 5 vols. New York: Times Books and 
Hector and Rose, 1984. A valuable collection of primary documents in 
English translation, many previously unpublished, that relate to 
Spanish exploration and conquest of the Americas. 

[Torres, Luis de]. New Light on the Discovery of Australia. Edited and 
translated by Henry N. Stearns. London: Hakluyt Society, 1930. A 
chronicle of the Pacific voyage and discoveries of Quiros by his sub¬ 

Vazquez de Espinoza. Compendium and Description of the West Indies. Trans¬ 
lated by Charles U. Clark. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 
1942. An early chronicle of Spanish explorations and conquests in the 
Caribbean, written by a contemporary. 

West, Delno, and August King, trans. and eds. The Libro de las profecias of 
Christopher Columbus. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991. 
This recent translation of Columbus’s Book of Prophecies provides 
insight into the explorer’s religious beliefs and outlook on the world 
in his own words. 

English Voyages 

Asher, G. M., ed. Henry Hudson, the Navigator. London: Hakluyt Society, 
1889. An account of the voyages in search of a Northeast and North¬ 
west Passage by the discoverer of Hudson Bay. 

Collinson, Richard, ed. The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher. London: 
Hakluyt Society, 1894. Accounts of Frobisher’s three voyages to the 
Arctic in search of a Northwest Passage. 

Dampier, William. A New Voyage Round the World. New York: Dover, 1968. 
Dampier’s account of his first circumnavigation of the world as a 

Drake, Sir Francis. The World Encompassed. [New York]: Readex Microprint, 
1966. A facsimile version of the original sixteenth-century publication 
of Drake’s voyage around the world. 

Edwards, Philip, ed. The Journals of Captain Cook. London: Penguin, 1999. 
An inexpensive and unabridged edition of all three voyages of the 
great explorer in his own words. 

Gallagher, Robert E, ed. Byron’s Journal of His Circumnavigation, 1764-1766. 
Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1964. The account of the first of the late 
eighteenth-century Pacific voyages. 

Hakluyt, Richard. Voyages and Discoveries: The Principal Navigations, Voy¬ 
ages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. Edited by Jack 
Beaching. London: Penguin Books, 1972. An abridged version of the 


Annotated Bibliography 

1598 edition of Hakluyt’s compilation of early English voyages 
through the sixteenth century. 

Markham, Albert H., ed. The Voyages and Works of John Davis, the Navigator. 
London: Hakluyt Society, 1840. An early edition of the account of 
Davis’s search in the sixteenth century for a Northwest Passage. 

Markham, Sir Clements, ed. The Voyages of William Baffin. London: Hakluyt 
Society, 1881. An original account of Baffin’s exploration in search of 
a Northwest Passage. 

Quinn, David B. The Last Voyage of Thomas Cavendish, 1591-92. Chicago: 
University of Chicago Press, 1975. A description of the failed second 
voyage of the Elizabethan adventurer to the Pacific. 

Robertson, George, The Discovery of Tahiti: A Journal of the Second Voyage of 
H.M.S. Dolphin. Hugh Carrington, ed. London: Hakluyt Society, 1948. 
A chronicle of the voyage of Samuel Wallis to the Pacific in 1766—1768. 

Wallis, Helen M., ed. Philip Carteret’s Voyage Round the World, 1766-1769. 2 
vols. Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1965. A description of the second 
major British expedition to the Pacific in the late eighteenth century. 

French Voyages 

Cartier, Jacques, A Shorte and Briefe Narration of the Two Navigations and 
Discoveries to the Northweast Partes called Newe Fraunce. London: 
1580. The first English translation of the French explorer’s original 
voyage to Canada. 

Cook, Ramsay, ed. The Voyages of Jacques Cartier. Translated by H. P. Biggar. 
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993. An English translation of 
Cartier’s voyages to Canada with additional documents. 

Dunmore, John, trans. and ed. The Pacific Journal of Louis-Antoine de 
Bougainville, 1767-1768. London: Hakluyt Society, 2002. pp. 72-73. A 
recent translation of Bougainville’s circumnavigation, expertly edited 
with a historical introduction to the voyage. 

Dutch Voyages 

Heeres, J. E., trans. and ed. Abel Janszoon Tasman’s Journals of His Discovery 
of Van Diemen’s Land and New Zealand in 1642. Amsterdam: E Muller, 
1898; reprint, Los Angeles: N. A. Kovach, 1965. An account of Tasmans 
first voyage to Australia under Van Diemen. 

[Le Maire, Jacob]. The East and West Indian Mirror. Translated and edited by 
J. A. J. de Villiers. London: Hakluyt Society, 1906. The account of the 
Pacific voyage of Le Maire and Schouten in the early seventeenth 

Annotated Bibliography 


Sharp, Andrew, ed. The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman. Oxford: Oxford 
University Press, 1968. A description of Tasman’s voyages of explora¬ 
tion to Australia, New Zealand, and adjacent islands. 

Veer, Gerrit de, trans. and ed. The Three Voyages of William Barents to the 
Arctic Regions. London: Hakluyt Society, 1876. An account of the 
Dutch explorer’s search for a Northeast Passage to China. 

Russian Voyages 

Dmytryshyn, Basil, et al., trans. and eds. Russian Penetration of the North 
Pacific Ocean, 1700-1797. Eugene: Oregon Historical Society Press, 
1988. An invaluable collection of documents in English translation 
from the eighteenth century related to Russian exploration of Siberia 
and the north Pacific. 

Muller, Gerhard Friedrich. Bering’s Voyages: The Reports from Russia. Trans¬ 
lated by Carol Urness. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1986. A 
modern English translation of the official reports by which tsarist 
Russia learned of Bering’s accomplishments, written by a member of 
the Russian Academy of Sciences who accompanied his second expe¬ 
dition in 1733-1740. 

Steller, Georg Wilhelm. Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-1742. Trans¬ 
lated and edited by O. W. Frost and Margritt A. Engel. Stanford: Stan¬ 
ford University Press, 1988. Bering’s final expedition to the northwest 
coast of North America as written by a German naturalist who accom¬ 
panied the voyage. 

Encyclopedias and Reference Works 

Bedini, Silvio A., ed. The Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia. 2 vols. New 
York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. An excellent and comprehensive 
source of articles on all matters pertaining to Columbus, his four voy¬ 
ages, and the world in which he lived. 

Robson, John, ed. The Captain Cook Encyclopedia. London: Chatham, 2004. 
An excellent reference work with articles not only on Cook and his 
various voyages but also on subjects ranging from geography to tech¬ 
nological and scientific terms. 

Waldman, Carl, and Alan Wexler, eds. Who Was Who in World Exploration. 
New York: Facts on File, 1982. A very useful reference work with 
well-written articles on explorers, from earliest times into the twenti¬ 
eth century. 


Annotated Bibliography 

Surveys and General Histories of the European 
Age of Discovery 

Albion, Robert G., ed. Exploration and Discovery. New York: MacMillan, 
1965. A collection of essays that examines aspects of exploration and 
discovery, from the late Middle Ages to the early twentieth century. 

Brewer, John, and Roy Porter, eds. Consumption and the World of Goods. 
London: Routledge, 1993. A collection of essays that examines the 
growth of transglobal commercial interaction that developed after 
European navigators had opened the world’s sea routes. 

Chaudhuri, K. N. Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean: An Economic 
History from the Rise of Islam to 1750. Cambridge: Cambridge Univer¬ 
sity Press, 1985. An overview of cultural and economic patterns in 
Asia prior to European expansion into the Indian Ocean and their 

Cipolla, Carlo. Guns, Sails & Empires: Technological Innovation & European 
Expansion, 1400—1700. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965. This excel¬ 
lent short study explores the technological development of guns and 
sailing ships as the foundation for European expansion during the 
Age of Discovery. 

Crosby, Alfred W., The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Conse¬ 
quences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973. An argument 
about the medical and epidemiological consequences in the Americas 
that followed in the wake of Columbus’s discovery of the New World. 

Elliott, J. H. The Old World and the New, 1492—1650. Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press, 1972. This classic work examines the intellectual 
consequences of the discovery and settlement of the Americas for 
early modern Europe, analyzing the ways that contact with new lands 
challenged traditional assumptions about geography, theology, history, 
and the nature of man. 

Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. Before Columbus: Exploration and Colonization 
from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1229—1492. London: MacMillan, 
1987. A comprehensive survey of medieval exploration that is difficult 
to read, but rewarding. 

Grafton, Anthony. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the 
Shock of Discovery. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992. 
This volume demonstrates how the evidence that a previously 
unknown New World existed shook the foundations of the old, upset¬ 
ting the authority of ancient texts that had guided Europeans through 
the Middle Ages and Renaissance. 

May, Commander W. E., RN. A History of Marine Navigation. Hanley-on- 
Thames, Oxfordshire: G. T. Fowks, 1973. A survey of the 

Annotated Bibliography 

1 77 

development of maritime navigation from earliest times to the present, 
written by a specialist in layman’s terms. 

Newton, Arthur P., ed. The Great Age of Discovery. New York: Burt Franklin 
and Lenox Hill, Publishers, 1932. A collection of essays that examine 
a range of subjects related to the Age of Discovery from changing 
European perceptions of the world in the late Middle Ages to the voy¬ 
ages of discovery and the foundation of colonial empires. 

Parry, John H. The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration and Settle¬ 
ment, 1450 to 1650. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963. A 
classic overview of European exploration during the Age of Discovery 
by a leading specialist. 

_. The Establishment of the European Hegemony, 1415—1715. New 

York: Harper Torch, 1959. This short volume explores the foundations 
of European dominance of maritime trade and empire through various 
aspects of exploration, in particular the Portuguese and Spanish 

Penrose, Boies. Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance, 1420-1602. Cam¬ 
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960. A very good overview of 
European exploration up to the mid-seventeenth century. 

Phillips, J. R. S., The Medieval Expansion of Europe. 2nd ed. Oxford: Claren¬ 
don Press, 1988. The best overview of European interest in, and 
knowledge of, the world beyond Christendom; it is especially good on 
European travelers overland to the East in the thirteenth century. 

Scammell, G. V. The First Imperial Age: European Overseas Expansion, 
c. 1400—1715. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989. The book is organized 
around a set of broad themes, for example, European motives for ex¬ 
ploration and expansion; how they managed to establish themselves 
in some parts of the world but not in others; the ways in which 
they exploited their new possessions, the nature of colonial societies; 
and the impact of the imperial experience on contemporary Europe. 


Despite their importance to the Age of Discovery, few maritime 
explorers have found their biographers, and most of what exists is old. The 
following titles are, however, a place to start. 

Ames, Glenn J. Vasco da Gama, Renaissance Crusader. New York: Pearson 
Longman, 2005. A brief but very good biography of the Portuguese 
explorer, which places his life and voyages in the historical context. 
Bacon, Edgar M. Henry Hudson, His Life and Tunes. New York: Putnam and 
Sons, 1917. One of the few biographies of the English explorer. 


Annotated Bibliography 

Beaglehole, J. C., The Life of Captain James Cook. Stanford: Stanford Univer¬ 
sity Press, 1974. This is still the best and most detailed biography of 
the explorer and his voyages to the Pacific. 

Beazley, Raymond. John and Sebastian Cabot and the Discovery of North 
America. New York: Burt Franklin, 1898. Although old, this is still a 
solid study of the Cabots’ contribution to exploration and one of the 
few books on the subject. 

Cameron, Ian. Magellan and the First Circumnavigation of the World. New 
York: Saturday Review Press, 1973. A popular biography, well illus¬ 
trated, of the Portuguese explorer. 

Cummins, John. Francis Drake: The Lives of a Flero. New York: St. Martins 
Press, 1995. A survey of the Elizabethan mariner’s life and accom¬ 

Duncan, David E. Hernando de Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas. New 
York: Crown, 1995. A revisionist biography of the Spanish explorer 
that deglorifies him and seeks to describe in unvarnished terms De 
Soto’s expeditions in Peru and Florida. 

Guillemard, E H. H. The Life of Ferdinand Magellan and the First Circumnavi¬ 
gation of the Globe. London: 1894. An old but still useful biography of 
the Portuguese explorer. 

Irving, Washington. The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Edited by 
John H. McElroy. Boston: Twayne, 1981. The first biography of 
Columbus, in any language, by the famous American storyteller; more 
interesting for the anecdotes Washington fabricated about the explor¬ 
er’s life than as a reliable history. 

MacLean, Alistair. Captain Cook. London: Collins, 1972. A nicely illustrated, 
popular biography of the great Pacific explorer. 

Markham, Sir Clements. A Life of John Davis, the Navigator, Discoverer of 
Davis Straits. London: George Philip, 1889. One of the few biogra¬ 
phies of the Elizabethan explorer. 

Marks, Richard L. Cortes: The Great Adventurer and the Fate of Aztec Mexico. 
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. A biography of the great conquista¬ 
dor that focuses on his subjugation of Mexico. 

McFee, William. The Life of Sir Martin Frobisher. London: John Lane. The 
Bodley Head, 1925. A solid biography of the explorer and Elizabethan 

Morison, Samuel Eliot. Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher 
Columbus. Boston: Little, Brown, 1942. Still the classic biography of 
Columbus, well written and time-tested. 

Phillips, William D., Jr., and Carla Rahn Phillips. The Worlds of Christopher 
Columbus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. This book 
examines the life and accomplishments of Columbus in the broad 
context of European and world history. 

Annotated Bibliography 


Pohl, Frederick J., Amerigo Vespucci, Pilot Major. New York: Columbia Uni¬ 
versity Press, 1944. One of the few biographies of the Italian explorer 
after whom the Americas are named. 

Powys, Llewelyn. Henry Hudson. London: J. Lane, 1927. A standard biogra¬ 
phy of the English explorer. 

Ramoli, Kathleen. Balboa of Darien: Discoverer of the Pacific. Garden City, NY: 
Doubleday, 1953. Although dated, this is a reliable portrait of Balboa and 
one of the few English-language biographies of the Spanish explorer. 

Russell, Peter. Prince Henry “the Navigator”: A Life. New Haven: Yale Univer¬ 
sity Press, 2001. An excellent and detailed biography of the father of 
European exploration. 

Sobel, Dava. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest 
Scientific Problem of His Time. London: Penguin, 1996. A popular biogra¬ 
phy of clockmaker John Harrison, his search for a solution to the naviga¬ 
tional problem of longitude, and his development of the chronometer. 

Suggen, John. Sir Francis Drake. New York: Simon and Schuster, f990. A 
comprehensive study of the Elizabethan adventurer, intended for a 
popular audience. 

Wilkinson, Clennel. William Dumpier. London: Lane, 1929. A standard, if 
dated, biography of the privateer-turned-explorer. 

Works on Portuguese Exploration 

Boxer, Charles R. Four Centuries of Portuguese Expansion, 1415-1825. 
Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1963. A comprehen¬ 
sive survey by the leading authority. 

_. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415—1825. London: Hutchinson, 

1969. The classic history of Portugal’s maritime empire, required reading 
for anyone interested in the Portuguese achievement or the Age of 

Diffie, B. W., and G. D. Winius. Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415— 
1580. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, f977. A chronologi¬ 
cal survey of the Portuguese discoveries, with discussion of 
problematic historical issues and myths, and an emphasis on the 
political and military aspect of Portugal’s maritime empire in Asia. 

Duffy, James. Portugal in Africa. Baltimore: Penguin, 1962. An authoritative 
and detailed study of Portuguese contact with Africa from the fifteenth 
through the twentieth centuries. 

_. Shipwreck and Empire: Portuguese Maritime Disasters in a Cen¬ 
tury of Decline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955. The 
volume examines the problem of shipwreck as background to the 
decline of the Portuguese empire in Asia between f 550 and 1650. 


Annotated Bibliography 

Pearson, N. M. The Portuguese in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University 
Press, 1987. A brief, well-written and up-to-date discussion of 
Portugal’s early maritime empire in India. 

Russell-Wood, A. J. P. The Portuguese Empire, 1415—1808: A World on the 
Move. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. A good survey 
history of the birth, growth, and eventual decline of the Portuguese 
maritime empire over four centuries and four continents. 

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500—1700: A Politi¬ 
cal and Economic History. London: Longman, 1993. This book explores 
the Asian and East African dimension of the Portuguese maritime 
empire, how it came into being, and how it changed over time. 

Works on Spanish Exploration 

Gibson, Charles. Spain in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1956. A 
splendidly clear and balanced narrative. 

McAlister, Lyle. Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492—1700. Minneapo¬ 
lis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. The most up-to-date history 
of the great South American empires of Spain and Portugal. 

Parry, John H. The Spanish Seaborne Empire. London: Hutchinson, 1966. 
The standard historical survey of Spain’s maritime empire in the 
Caribbean, the Americas, and the Philippines by one of the founders 
of the field. 

Schurz, William L. “The Spanish Lake.” Hispanic American Historical Review 
vol. 5, no. 2 (May 1922): 181-194. This brief article by the historian 
of the Manila galleons explains how it is that Spain laid claim to, and 
endeavored to maintain, its legal claim over the Pacific Ocean. 

Works on Circumnavigation and the 
Northwest Passage 

Mirsky, Jeannette. To the Arctic! The Story of Northern Exploration from Ear¬ 
liest Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948. A lively and 
interesting narrative of Arctic exploration from the ancient Greeks to 
the mid-1940s, including the search for a Northwest and a Northeast 

Neatby, L. H. In Quest of the Northwest Passage. New York: Thomas Y. 
Crowell, 1958. A brief, popular history of the search for the North¬ 
west Passage from Frobisher to Sir John Franklin. 

Annotated Bibliography 


Savours, Ann. The Search for the Northwest Passage. New York: St. Martin’s 
Press, 1999. This book traces the search for the passage to China from 
the Elizabethan voyages of the sixteenth century to the first successful 
journey through the passage in the early twentieth century. 

Works on Pacific Exploration 

Beaglehole, J. C. The Exploration of the Pacific. 3rd ed. Stanford: Stanford 
University Press, 1966. A classic history of Pacific exploration from 
Magellan to James Cook by the leading authority. 

Boxer, Charles R. The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600—1800. London: Hutchinson, 
1963. An excellent introduction to the subject. 

Buck, Peter H. Explorers of the Pacific: European and American Discoveries in 
Polynesia. Honolulu: Bishop Museum, 1953. A relatively brief but 
solid survey history of Spanish, English, Dutch, French, and Russian 
voyages into the Pacific. 

Dunmore, John. French Explorers in the Pacific. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 
1945. This book focuses on French voyages to the Pacific from the 
sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. 

Howse, Derek, ed. Background to Discovery: Pacific Exploration from Dampier 
to Cook. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. A collection of 
essays that examine different aspects of the eighteenth-century Pacific 
voyages of Great Britain and France. 

Israel, J. I. Dutch Primacy in World Trade, 1585-1740. Oxford: Oxford Uni¬ 
versity Press, 1989. A general survey of the development of Dutch 
trade in the Atlantic and in Asia. 

Sherry, Frank. Pacific Passions: The European Struggle for Power in the Great 
Ocean in the Age of Exploration. New York: William Morrow, 1994. A 
sweeping narrative of 250 years of European exploration of the 
Pacific, from Balboa to the voyages of Cook. 

Williams, Glyndwr. The Great South Sea: English Voyages and Encounters, 
1570—1750. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. A very readable 
history of English voyages to the Pacific prior to the expeditions of 
James Cook, from the circumnavigation of Francis Drake to that of 
Commodore George Anson. 

Withey, Lynne, Voyages of Discovery: Captain Cook and the Exploration of the 
Pacific. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. This account 
focuses on James Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific and his skills as 
a navigator and leader of men, while fixing his expeditions in the sci¬ 
entific, strategic and literary settings of the day. 


Annotated Bibliography 

Web Sources 

http ://www. fordham. edu/halsall/mod/modsbook03. html 

See “The Early Modern World System” for the voyages of discovery; bio¬ 
graphical information on Portuguese, Spanish, English, Dutch, French, Rus¬ 
sian, and American explorers; and primary documents. An excellent Web 
site for the subject. 

http://www. hakluy t. com 

This is the Web site for Hakluyt Society of London, with links to its history, 
publications, and so on. 
This is the Web site for the James Ford Bell Library at the University of 
Minnesota, which holds the world’s largest collection of sixteenth-, seven¬ 
teenth-, and eighteenth-century travel literature, as well as maps relevant to 
the Age of Discovery. 

This is the Web site for the Newberry Library in Chicago, which contains 
one of the finest collections in North America of early maps and travel 
accounts related to European exploration. 

This is the Web site for the Gold Hind Museum ship, a replica of Drakes fa¬ 
mous vessel constructed in 1963, with links to such topics as shipboard 
food, Tudor navigation, and so on. and 

These are Web sites for the Batavia Virtual Museum in both Dutch and Eng¬ 
lish, which include links to a virtual factory, a virtual tour of the Dutch East 
India Company headquarters at Batavia on the island of Java, and so on. 

This is a guide to maritime museums around the world, arranged by conti¬ 
nent, to facilitate research in maritime history on line. 


The Bounty, 1984, directed by Roger Donaldson, starring Anthony Hopkins 
as Captain Bligh and Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian. Although this 
film focuses on the famous mutiny in 1789, the representation of 

Annotated Bibliography 


voyages to the Pacific during the age of sail and the re-creation of 
Polynesian culture on Tahiti are both faithful to history and dramatic. 

Captain James Cook, i987, directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, starring 
Keith Michell. This made-for-television miniseries in four episodes is 
an excellent dramatization of the life and voyages of the great Pacific 
explorer. It is historically accurate with a strong cast and a faithful re¬ 
creation of events, though some dramatic license is taken to compress 
the story for television. 

Christopher Columbus, 1948, directed by David MacDonald, starring Fredric 
March. This is a classic production that gives a step-by-step biography 
of the fifteenth-century explorer, his discovery of the New World, the 
fame that first greeted him, and his last days. Columbus is presented 
as a hero and a man ahead of his times, and although the movie takes 
some poetic license, especially by repeating some of the fabrications 
invented by Washington Irving, it is far more accurate historically 
than either of the films produced in 1992: Christopher Columbus: The 
Discovery, which is so inept as to be laughable, and 1492: Conquest of 
Paradise, which strives painfully for political correctness but succeeds 
only in distorting the historical record beyond recognition. 

Into the Rising Sun: Vasco da Gama and the Search for a Sea Route to the East, 
1997, directed by Luc Cuyvers. This made-for-television documentary 
marked the five hundredth anniversary of Da Gama’s voyage to India. 
It places the event within historical context, and much of the docu¬ 
mentary was also filmed on location in India and the Spice Islands. 


Acapulco, 86, 91, 92, 93, 131, 158, 

Afonso V Aviz, king of Portugal 
(r. 1438-1481), 16, 19, 36, 139 
Africa, 1, 2, 7, 34, 35, 87, 89, 96, 
106, 107, 111, 115, 116, 117, 
124, 130, 138, 139, 149, 153, 
154, 156, 160 

Ailly, Pierre d’, cardinal (1350— 
1420), 39 

Albuquerque, Afonso de, second 
viceroy of Portugal’s seaborne 
empire in Asia (1453-1515), 25, 
26, 29, 34, 61, 139 
Alcayovas-Toledo, Treaty of, 37, 45 
Alexander VI Borgia, Pope 
(r. 1492-1503), 45, 149 
Almeida, Francisco de, first viceroy 
of Portugal’s seaborne empire in 
Asia (ca. 1450-1510), 25-26, 

29, 61, 139 

Anghiera, Pietro Martire d’ (ca. 
1457-1526), 34, 57, 58, 59, 62, 
119-120, 122, 155 
Anson, George, commodore 
(1698-1762), 102-103 
Antarctic Circle, 51, 111, 134, 148, 
149, 150, 152, 154; and Antarc¬ 
tica, 106, 111, 123 
Antilles, Greater and Lesser. See 
West Indies 

Antipodes. See Terra Australis 

Arab navigators, xiv-xv 
Aragon, 36-37 

Arctic Ocean, 55, 68, 72, 80, 82, 
86, 95, 104, 148, 149, 150, 155; 
and Arctic Circle, 69, 74, 76, 80, 
81, 104; and Kara Strait, 75, 76; 
and the Kara Sea, 75; and 
Novaya Zernlya, 74, 75, 76 
Arteaga, Ignacio de (fl. late 1700s), 

Asia, 49, 55, 60, 61, 64, 67, 69, 

72, 75, 77, 86, 87, 89, 90, 95, 

97, 98, 111, 115, 116, 117, 121, 
124, 129, 130, 138, 139, 142, 
150, 151, 152, 153, 155, 156, 
160; geographic cohesiveness of, 
2, 22, 26, 30 

Atlantic Islands, 29, 40; and the 
Azores, 10, 15, 19, 21, 38, 40, 
44, 46; and the Canaries, 10, 15, 
37, 39, 40, 43; and the Madei- 
ras, 10, 13, 19, 38 
Atlantic Ocean, 4, 5-6, 10, 16, 35, 
39, 49, 52, 55, 56, 58, 60, 74, 

78, 86, 89, 94, 96, 101, 103, 

106, 107, 108, 113, 115, 121, 
126, 133, 147, 151, 153, 157 
Australia, 92, 96, 97, 99, 100, 101, 
106, 107, 108, 113, 115, 131, 



Australia ( continued) 

151-160; and Botany Bay, 110, 
112; and Cape Keer-Weer, 96; 
and Cape Leeuwin, 97, 99; and 
Cape York Peninsula, 96, 97, 

99, 100, 110; and the Great 
Australian Bight, 97, 99; and the 
Great Barrier Reef, 110; and the 
Gulf of Carpentaria, 100, 132; 
and Tasmania (Anthony van 
Diemen’s Land), 97, 99, 100, 
112, 132 

Austrian Succession, War of 
(1740-1746), 103 

Ayllon, Lucas Vasquez (ca. 1475- 
1526), 66 

Azurara, Gomes Eannes de (ca. 
1410-1474), 12, 13 

Baffin, William (ca. 1584-1622), 
81; and Baffin Island, 77, 79, 81 

Balboa, Vasco Nunez (1475-1519), 
57-58, 59, 60, 86, 119, 155- 
156; and the colony of Santa 
Maria de la Antigua del Darien, 
57, 156 

Barbosa, Duarte (7-1521), 26 

Barents, William (7-1597), 75-76, 
80; and the Barents Sea, 74, 


Bastidas, Rodrigo de (1460-1526), 

Bering, Vitus (1681-1741), 66, 

101, 103-104, 105; and the 
Bering Sea, 104, 113; and the 
Bering Strait, 110, 111; and his 
orders, 161-162 

Bodega y Quadra, Juan Francisco 
de la (1743-1794), 112, 113 

Borough, Stephen (1525-1584), 

75, 122 

Bougainville, Louis-Antoine, comte 
de (1729-1811), 85, 108-109, 
112, 113, 120-121, 162, 165 

Bouvet de Lozier, Pierre (1705- 
1786), 106 

Brosses, Charles de (1709-1777), 

Button, Sir Thomas (fl. early 
1600s), 81 

Bylot, Robert (fl. early 1600s), 81 

Byron, John (1723-1786), 107 

Cabot, John (Giovanni Caboto, ca. 
1450-ca. 1498), 49-50, 51, 55, 
66, 69, 72, 78, 121, 133, 151— 

Cabot, Sebastian (ca. 1476-1557), 
66-67, 69, 73, 78, 121-122, 133 

Cabral, Pedro Alvares (ca. 1467- 
ca. 1520), 25, 26, 34, 50, 134; 
Muslim opposition to, in Asia, 


Canada, 50, 68, 71, 81, 105, 120, 
122, 150; and British Columbia, 
111, 112, 113; exploration of 
the interior of, 116; and the Gulf 
of St. Lawrence, 70, 71, 133; 
and Labrador, 50, 69, 71, 77, 

78, 79, 121; and Nootka Sound 
(Vancouver Island), 112, 113; 
and Nova Scotia, 49, 69, 133; 
and St. Lawrence River, 71, 122 

Cape Horn, 89, 98, 101, 103, 106, 

107, 110, 111, 113 

Cape of Good Hope, 9, 20, 21, 23, 
25, 27, 40, 50, 65, 72, 73, 87, 

89, 94, 95, 96, 101, 106, 107, 

108, 110, 123, 124, 154 

Cape Verde, 17, 18; and the Cape 
Verde Islands, 17, 21, 40, 46, 


Caribbean Sea, 5, 35, 55, 59, 67, 
93, 105, 133, 134 

Carteret, Philip (1733-1796), 108, 

Cartier, Jacques (1491-1557), 
70-71, 72, 150, 151 



Castile, 36-37, 58, 62 
Cathay. See China 
Catholic Church, 3, 4 
Cavendish, Thomas (1560-1593), 
80, 95 

Central America, 7, 47, 59, 60, 68, 
86, 91, 134; and Costa Rica, 57; 
and Darien (Gulf of), 57, 60, 62, 
120, 152; and Honduras, 57; 
and the Isthmus of Panama, 48, 
57, 58, 60, 61, 101, 132, 133; 
and the Yucatan Peninsula, 60 
Ceuta, 12, 13 

Chancellor, Richard (7-1556), 74- 
75, 122 

Charles V Habsburg, Holy Roman 
Emperor (r. 1517/19-1555/56), 
36, 60, 63, 72, 91, 122, 150 
China: first contacts with the 
Portuguese, 26; Ming dynasty of, 
2—3, 22; navigators, xiv—xv; 
Portuguese factory at Macau, 28, 
30; quest for, 5, 7, 11, 21-22, 

26, 29, 39, 43, 44, 45, 50, 51, 

61, 65, 74, 76, 77, 78, 79, 90, 

91, 93, 99, 104, 121, 128, 129, 
151, 155; and trade monopoly 
with Japan, 29; and war with 
Great Britain (1839-1842), 116 
Cipangu. See Japan 
Classical authority (ancient Greek 
and Roman), xv, 7, 41, 65, 66, 
77, 87, 162; and Pliny the Elder, 
77; and Ptolemy, 39, 66, 87, 

126, 130-131; and Pythagoras, 

Collander, John (7-1789), 107 
Columbus, Bartolomeu, brother of 
Christopher (1461-1514/15), 

47, 56; and the colony of Santo 
Domingo, 47 

Columbus, Christopher (1451— 
1506), xiv, 10, 21, 34, 36, 37, 

51, 55, 56, 58, 61, 65, 69, 89, 

90, 119, 120, 121, 124, 129, 

130, 131, 133, 142-147, 151; 
appraisal of, by Washington 
Irving, 41; and the colony of La 
Isabella, 47, 56; and the colony 
of La Navidad, 44, 47; at the 
court of Portugal, 40; at the 
court of Spain, 40^-3, 146; 
death of, 48, 49; demands of, for 
reward, 42, 143-144; and duchy 
of Veragua, 48, 57; first voyage 
of, 43^14, 134, 144-145; fourth 
voyage of, 47, 57; geographic 
speculations of, 38^10; his 
description of his discoveries, 
43^14, 45, 144-145; and his 
Enterprise of the Indies, 38-40, 
41, 42, 44, 142, 146; and Paolo 
Toscanelli, 39; personal back¬ 
ground of, 38, 48; religious 
views of, 48^-9, 145-146; sec¬ 
ond voyage of, 46^-7; third 
voyage of, 9, 47, 135 
Columbus, Ferdinand, natural son 
of Christopher (1488-1539), 38, 
40, 44 

Conquistadores, 52, 57, 60 
Constantinople, 3, 4, 6, 10 
Cook, Captain James (1728-1779), 
85, 88-89, 108, 109-111, 112, 
113, 122-123, 162, 163, 164, 
165; and Cook Strait (New 
Zealand), 99, 110; and the Cook 
Islands, 92; death of. 111, 123, 
163; first voyage of, 109-110; 
second voyage of, 110; third 
voyage of, 110-111, 112, 


Coronado, Francisco Vasquez de 
(ca. 1510-1554), 116 
Correa, Gaspar (fl. early 1500s), 

22, 23, 24, 139, 140 
Corte-Real, Gaspar (ca. 1450-ca. 
1501), 50, 51, 55, 133 



Cortes, Hernan (1485-1547), 52, 
60-61, 63, 66, 91, 119, 120 
Cosa, Juan de la (ca. 1460-1510), 
51, 57, 134 
Crusades, 5, 16, 18 

Dalrymple, Alexander (1734— 
1808), 107, 109, 111 
Dampier, William (ca. 1652-1715), 
101-102, 106, 158, 159, 160, 
161; and Alexander Selkirk, 102, 
160-161; and Dampier Strait, 
101; and his publications, 101, 

Davis, John (ca. 1550-1605), 79- 
80, 81 

Del Cano, Juan Sebastian (ca. 

1487-1526), 65, 90, 91 
Demarcation of the globe, 45^-6, 
50, 67, 124, 134, 149-150; and 
Conference of Badajoz (1523— 
1524), 66; and Treaty of Zara¬ 
goza (1529), 67. See also Torde- 
sillas. Treaty of 

Dias, Bartolomeu (1450-1500), 
20-21, 22, 23, 40, 87, 123 
Diemen, Anthony van, Dutch 
Governor-General of Batavia 
(7-1645), 99, 100, 132 
Drake, Francis (ca. 1540-1596), 

85, 93-95, 97, 107, 127, 
156-158; and New Albion 
(California), 94, 107, 158 
Dutch Netherlands. See United 

East Africa, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 
86; and Kilwa, 25; and Malindi, 
2, 5, 23, 124; and Mogadishu, 2; 
and Mombasa, 23, 28; and 
Mozambique, 23, 26, 30, 124; 
and Socotra (Indian Ocean), 26 
East Indies, 27, 34, 49, 56, 61, 95, 
102, 108, 131, 132, 146, 159 

Elizabeth I Tudor, queen of England 
(r. 1558-1601), 73, 77, 93, 158 

England, 3, 4, 49, 67, 85, 86, 89, 
90, 94, 95, 101, 102, 121, 122, 
126, 139; and Anglo-Spanish 
rivalry, 67, 93, 94, 95, 102, 127, 
158; and the Cathay Company 
(est. 1577), 77; and the Com¬ 
pany of Merchant Adventurers, 
73, 74, 122; and the English 
East India Company (est. 1600), 
80, 95, 107, 126; exploration as 
national enterprise, 101, 121; 
motives for voyages of explora¬ 
tion, 72, 73-74, 78, 79, 93, 94, 
95, 107; and the Muscovy Com¬ 
pany (est. 1555), 74, 122; and 
national pride, 73, 125; and the 
Northwest Company (est. 1584), 
79; seaborne empire of, xiv, 8, 
115; and the South Sea Com¬ 
pany (est. 1711), 102.See also 
Great Britain 

Entrecasteaux, Bruni d’ (1737- 
1793), 112 

Exploration, Age of, historical 
treatments, xiii—xv 

Factory ( feitoria ), 16, 21, 26, 28, 
30, 62, 124; at Colombo 
(Ceylon), 28; at Macau (China), 
28, 30; and Mombassa (East 
Africa), 28; at Mozambique, 26, 
30; at Sao Jorge de Mina (West 
Africa), 16, 38; at Soffala, 26, 
124; at Ternate (Moluccas 
Islands), 28 

Falkland Islands, 80, 103, 107, 


Fenton, Edward (7-1603), 95 

Ferdinand II, king of Aragon 
(r. 1479-1516), 9, 36, 37, 41, 

42, 43, 44, 45, 47, 49, 121, 122, 
142, 143, 145, 147, 149, 150 



Fernandez, Joao (fl. early 1500s), 

Fountain of youth, 59 

Foxe, Luke (1586-ca. 1635), 


France, 3, 49, 67, 85-86, 89, 90, 
95, 101, 102, 104, 106, 112, 

121, 125, 133, 139; and Anglo- 
French rivalry (Pacific), 104— 
105, 107, 109, 120, 123; motives 
for voyages of exploration, 70, 
71, 72, 108, 117, 133; seaborne 
empire of, xiv, 8, 105, 115, 120 

Francis I Valois, king of France 
(r. 1515-1547), 70, 133, 151 

French Revolution (1789-1799), 
115, 116, 121 

Frobisher, Sir Martin (ca. 1535— 
1594), 77-78, 80, 93, 155 

Galapagos Islands, 91 

Gama, Vasco da (ca. 1460-1524), 

9, 21, 22-24, 25, 26, 27, 34, 48, 
87, 123-124, 138, 139, 140- 
141; death of, 124; in India, 24- 
25, 124; Muslim opposition to, 
in East Africa, 23, 124; second 
voyage of, 25 

Geography and geographic knowl¬ 
edge: of Africa, 17; of Asia, 60, 
129; of Australia, 97, 99, 100, 
159-160; development of, xiv, 
xv, 14, 20, 41, 50, 55, 65-66, 

77, 82, 90, 94, 105, 155, 157; of 
the globe, 86, 87, 89, 115, 148- 
149; ideas of Cardinal Pierre 
d’Ailly, 39; ideas of Christopher 
Columbus, 38^-0; ideas of Ger¬ 
ardus Mercator, 128; ideas of 
Paolo Toscanelli, 39; ideas of 
Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, 58, 
62-63, 120; ideas of Ptolemy, 
130-131; ideas of Richard 
Hakluyt, 124-125; of the New 

World, 51, 58, 62-63, 69, 70, 
133-134, 153-154, 162; of the 
Pacific, 65-66, 88, 102, 104, 

109, 110, 112, 113, 123, 162; 
of Terra Australis Incognita, 

Gilbert, Sir Humphrey (ca. 1539- 
1583), 76-77, 78-79, 154, 155 
Gomara, Francisco Lopez de 
(1512-1572), 34, 66 
Gomes, Fernao (fl. 1470s), 19 
Gomez, Estavao (ca. 1474-ca. 
1538), 66 

Granada, emirate of, 10, 36, 37, 42 
Great Britain, 104, 116, 120; and 
Anglo-French rivalry (Pacific), 
104-105, 107, 109, 120, 123; 
and Anglo-Spanish rivalry 
(Pacific), 112, 113; motives for 
voyages of exploration, 109, 

113, 117, 123. See also England 
Great Southern Continent. See 
Terra Australis Incognita 
Greenland, 50, 77, 79, 81 

Hakluyt, Richard (ca. 1552-1616), 
73, 74, 75, 77, 78, 124-126 
Harrison, John (1693-1776), 88, 

Hawkins, Richard (1533-1595), 95 
Henry VIII Tudor, king of England 
(r. 1509-1547), 69, 73, 121 
Henry “the Navigator,” Prince of 
Portugal (1394-1460), 12-14, 

15, 16-17, 18, 19, 28, 29, 38, 

48; death of, 19; his court at 
Sagres, 13-14; official policy for 
trade and exploration under, 
17-18; and the Order of Christ, 
13, 16, 17; and the route around 
Africa to India, 19 
Henry VII Tudor, king of England 
(r. 1485-1509), 50, 121, 152 
Hormuz, 22, 26, 129, 141-142 



Hudson, Henry (ca. 1550-ca. 

1610), 76, 80-81; and Hudson 
Bay, 69, 80-81, 107; and 
Hudson River, 70; and Hudson 
Strait, 69, 78, 79, 81 

Imperialism, Age of, xiii, 69, 117 
India, 7, 18, 22, 23, 34, 40, 46, 96, 
104, 105, 107, 123, 129, 140; 
and Calicut, 21, 23, 25, 26, 61, 
124, 140; and Cannanur, 25; 
and Cochin, 25, 124; and Diu, 
27, 61; and Genoa, 7, 10, 13, 

14, 38, 129; Malabar Coast of, 
21, 26 

Indian Ocean, 1, 5-6, 21, 25, 29, 
30, 60, 65, 66, 87, 96, 99, 106, 
120, 132; and the island of 
Mauritius, 96, 99, 120; and the 
island of Reunion, 120; and the 
island of Socotra, 26; and the 
monsoon winds, 2, 29, 96; naval 
power in, 21—22 

Indonesia, 26, 27, 46, 61, 86, 96; 
and the Admiralty Islands, 108; 
and the island of Timor, 101 
Industrial Revolution, the, 115, 


Irving, Washington (1783-1859), 

Isabella I, queen of Castile (r. 
1474-1504), 9, 36, 37, 38, 41, 
42, 43, 44, 45, 47, 49, 119, 122, 
142, 143, 145, 147, 149, 150 
Islam, 2, 4, 7, 10, 16, 18, 24 
Italy, 62, 70, 119, 133; and Genoa, 
7, 10, 13, 14, 38, 129; and 
Venice, 7, 128, 129 
Ivan IV “the Terrible” Rurik, tsar 
of Russia (r. 1533-1584), 74 

Jackman, Charles (fl. late 1500s), 75 
James, Thomas (1593-1635), 


Jansz, William (1570-?), 96-97 
Japan, 22, 26, 29, 39, 43, 44, 45, 
51, 79, 91, 99, 116, 132, 152, 
162; first contacts with the 
Portuguese, 27; Portuguese trade 
monopoly with, 29 
Java, island of, 2, 99, 100; and 
Bantam, 96; and Batavia, 96, 98, 
99, 101, 103, 108, 110, 112, 132 
Jefferson, Thomas, president of the 
United States (1801-1809), 114, 

John I Aviz, king of Portugal 
(r. 1385-1433), 12 
John II Aviz, king of Portugal 
(r. 1481-1495), 19-20, 40, 46, 
139, 148, 149, 150; claims 
Columbus’s discoveries for 
Portugal, 44, 45, 148 
Juan Fernandez Islands, 91, 98, 
102, 107, 108, 160 

Kerguelan-Tremaric, Yves de 
(1734-1797), 106 

La Perouse, Jean de (1741-1788?), 
111-112, 113 

Legazpi, Miguel Lopex de (ca. 
1510-1572), 91 

Le Maire, Isaac (?-1624), 97; and 
Strait of Le Maire, 98, 103 
Le Maire, Jacob (ca. 1565-1616), 

Lewis and Clark Expedition 
(1803-1806), 112, 113-114 
Longitude. See navigation 
Louis XV Bourbon, king of France 
(1715-1774), 108; and the 
Louisiade Islands, 108 
Loyasa, Garcia Jofre de (?-1528?), 
90, 91 

Magellan, Ferdinand (ca. 1480- 
1521), 34, 60, 61-66, 70, 85, 



86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 92, 94, 119, 
155, 157; and shipboard condi¬ 
tions during Pacific crossing, 64; 
and the Strait of Magellan, 61, 
64, 66, 70, 72, 77, 80, 88, 89, 
92, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 103, 108, 
120, 122, 133, 154-155 
Ma Huan (ca. 1380-ca. 1460), 2, 
141, 142 

Malacca, 2, 22, 26, 61, 96; Strait 
of, 24, 26, 96 

Malaspina, Alejandro (ca. 1755— 
1810), 113, 115 
Malaysia, navigators, 1 
Manila Galleon. See Philippines 
Islands; Trade, networks of 
Mansa Muhammad, king of Mali 
(13077-1337?), 5 
Manuel I Aviz, king of Portugal 
(r. 1495-1521), 22, 24, 27, 62 
Mediterranean Sea, xiv, xv, 3, 6, 
10-11, 12, 14, 24, 27, 29, 36, 

52, 66, 82, 121 

Melanesia, 1, 64, 86, 98; and Fiji 
Islands, 99, 132; and New 
Britain, 101, 108, 132; and New 
Caledonia, 111, 112; and the 
New Hebrides Islands, 92, 108, 
111, 131; and the Santa Cruz 
Islands, 92, 108, 112, 128, 131 
Mendana, Alvaro de (ca. 1541- 
1595), 92, 108, 111, 112, 127- 
128, 131 

Mercator, Gerardus, geographer 
and cartographer (1512-1594), 
51, 125, 128 

Mexico, 35, 60, 62, 63, 70, 72, 86, 
91, 92, 101, 119, 131, 148, 157, 
158; Aztec Empire of, 35, 52, 

60, 68, 86; Gulf of, 59, 68 
Micronesia, 86; and the island of 
Guam, 64, 101, 107, 113, 159; 
and the Marianas Islands, 64; 
and the Marshall Islands, 127; 

and the Solomon Islands, 92, 99, 
108, 112, 127, 128, 131 
Middle East, 2, 6-7, 10; and the 
Holy Land, 48 

Moluccas Islands, 27, 28, 46, 59, 
60, 61, 62, 64, 66, 67, 86, 94, 

96, 97, 101, 103, 132, 154, 158; 
and Ternate, 61, 65, 94; and 
Tidore, 65 

Mongol Empire, 6, 128, 129 
Morison, Samuel Eliot (1887— 
1976), 48 

National identity and exploration, 
58, 63, 73, 78; and national 
rivalries, 67-68, 71, 72, 92, 93, 
96, 97, 100-101, 115, 116-117, 
150-151; and state sponsorship, 
67, 68, 69, 85 

Navigation, 1, 10, 15, 20-22, 25, 
78, 82, 86, 90, 92, 94, 96, 97, 

98, 108, 109, 122, 123, 124, 

135; advances in, 7; ancient 
Greek and Roman, 3; in Asia, 

29; in the Pacific, 88-89, 105- 
106; and the problem of longi¬ 
tude, 88, 90, 105, 121, 126, 130 
Newfoundland, 49, 69, 70, 71, 78, 
115, 121, 122, 133, 134; and the 
Grand Banks, 49, 72 
New Guinea, 90, 91, 92, 98, 99, 
100, 101, 103, 107, 108, 131, 
132, 159, 160 

New Holland. See Australia 
New Spain. See Mexico 
New World, 7, 9, 38, 44, 51, 52, 
55, 56, 58, 59, 60, 67, 70, 71, 

72, 78, 86, 89, 93, 94, 97, 115, 
119, 122, 125, 133, 134, 135, 
148, 150, 151, 153 
New Zealand, 1, 99, 100, 110, 

112, 113, 132 

North Africa, 4, 10, 11-12, 37; and 
Morocco, 12, 14, 16, 21, 27, 62 



North America, 5, 50, 52, 55, 69, 

77, 79, 104, 113, 115, 121, 

123, 128, 134, 162; and Alaska, 
104, 111, 112, 113, 161; and 
California, 89, 92, 94, 107, 111, 

112, 113, 127, 158, 159; and 
Florida, 59, 62, 66, 68, 70, 72, 

78, 119, 133, 134; and Maine, 
66, 70; and Oregon, 112, 113; 
and Washington (state of), 113 

Northeast Passage, 74-77, 80, 95, 
122, 155 

Northwest Passage, quest for, 69, 
70, 72, 73, 74, 77-82, 95, 107, 

113, 154-155, 157, 158; and the 
mythic Strait of Anian, 77, 78, 
90, 93, 110 

Oceania, 6, 95 

Ojeda, Afonso de (ca. 1465-1515), 
51, 56, 119, 134 
Old Testament authority: and 
Hiram of Tyre, 62; and King 
Solomon, 62, 87, 116, 127; and 
Orphir, 62, 87, 127; and 
Tarshish, 62, 127 

Olid, Cristobal de (1492-1524), 60 
Ovando, Frey Nicolas de (ca. 
1451-1511), 56 

Pacific Ocean, 5-6, 29, 58, 59, 

60, 61, 64, 66, 70, 78, 80, 81, 

82, 115, 119, 120, 127, 131, 

132, 160; discovery of, 58, 155- 
156; islands of, 1; motives for 
exploration of, 85, 87; named, 


Paulmyer, Binot (fl. early 1500s), 
87, 88, 106; and Gonneville 
Land, 87, 106 

Pereira, Duarte Pacheco (7-1533), 

Perez, Juan Josef (ca. 1725-1775), 

Persian Gulf, 2, 22, 26 

Peru, 35, 86, 91, 92, 98, 99, 127, 
128, 131, 132, 148, 159; Inca 
Empire of, 35, 52, 57, 68, 86, 

Pet, Arthur (fl. late 1500s), 75 

Peter I “the Great” Romanov, tsar 
of Russia (r. 1689-1725), 103, 

Philippines Islands, 61, 65, 67, 86, 
89, 90, 91, 92, 94, 113, 131, 

132, 158, 159; and the island of 
Cebu, 65, 91; and the Manila 
Galleon, 91, 93, 94, 131, 158- 

Philip II Habsburg, king of Spain 
(r. 1556-1598), 91, 95 

Pigafetta, Antonio (1491-1535), 

63, 64, 65 

Pinzon, Martin Alonzo (1441— 
1493), 145 

Pinzon, Vincent Yanez (1460—ca. 
1524), 56 

Pizzaro, Francisco (1476-1541), 

52, 57 

Polo, Marco (1254-1324), 5, 6, 11, 
34, 39, 48, 87, 124, 128-129 

Polynesia, 1, 64, 86, 106; and 
Easter Island, 1, 103, 111; and 
the Hawaiian Islands, 1, 92, 111, 

123, 163; and the Marquesas 
Islands, 92, 111, 127, 128; and 
the Samoa Islands, 92, 103, 107, 
108, 112; and the Society 
Islands, 103; and Tahiti, 92, 

108, 110, 123, 162-165; and the 
Tonga Islands, 98, 99; and the 
Tuamotu Islands, 103, 127, 131; 
voyages of exploration to, xv 

Ponce de Leon, Juan (1460-1521), 
59-60, 61 

Portugal, 7, 10, 49, 89, 91, 123, 

124, 131, 133, 142, 150, 151, 
152, 153; administration of, 25, 



27-30, 52; commercial focus of, 
in Asia, 22-23, 27, 140; con¬ 
quests of, 26-27; and the coun¬ 
try trade in maritime Asia, 28; 
European challenges to maritime 
empire, 30; exploration as 
national enterprise, 11, 12, 19, 
28, 34, 37, 40, 138-139; first 
contact with China, 26; first 
contact with Japan, 27; geo¬ 
graphic extent of, 28-29; and 
the Moluccas Islands, 27, 28; 
motives for and advantages in 
voyages of exploration, 10-12, 
13, 15, 22, 24, 25, 29; naval 
power of, 22, 25, 26, 28, 29, 34; 
and navigation, 6, 10; and the 
North Atlantic, 50; official pol¬ 
icy toward trade and exploration 
of, 17-18; papal and royal edicts 
in support of, 16, 18-19; recon- 
quista of, 10; rivalry of, with 
Spain, 86, 147, 149; seaborne 
empire of, xiv, 8, 27, 30, 45, 46, 
124; and trade from Asia to 
Europe, 30; and trade monopoly 
between China and Japan, 29; 
united with Spain (1580), 95; 
voyages of exploration, xiii, 5, 9, 
35, 73; war with Castile and 
Aragon, 36; in West Africa, 27 

Prester John, mythic Christian 
king, 11 

Privateers, 85, 93, 94, 101, 102; 
and Alexander Selkirk (1676— 
1721), 160-161; and Woodes 
Rogers (ca. 1679-1732), 102, 


Ptolemy, Claudius (ca. 90-ca. 

168), 39, 66, 126, 128, 129-131 

Quiros, Pedro Fernandez (1565- 
1615), 92, 103, 108, 127, 128, 

Red Sea, 2, 26, 28, 29; and the 
port of Aden, 26 
Reformation, the, 93 
Roggeveen, Jacob (1659-1729), 
101, 103, 106 

Russia, 56, 74, 75, 76, 85-86, 112, 
122; and Archangel, 74, 75; ex¬ 
ploration as state enterprise, 

103, 104; and Kamchatka (river 
and peninsula), 103, 104, 112, 
162; and motives for voyages of 
exploration, 104, 117; and the 
Ob River, 75, 162; and Siberia, 
103, 104, 116, 162 
Ryuku Islands, 62 

Saavedra, Alvaro de (7-1529), 91 
Sahara Desert, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17, 


Santangal, Luis de (7-1505), 43 
Schouten, Jan (?-ca. 1616), 98 
Schouten, Willem (ca. 1567- 
1625), 97; and Schouten Islands, 

Science and exploration, 85, 102, 

105, 109, 117, 120; and Daniel 
Solander, botanist (1733-1782), 
109, 110, 164; in the Pacific, 

108, 110, 112, 113; and the 
Royal Society of London (for the 
Promotion of Natural Knowl¬ 
edge), 109, 110, 111, 123, 126, 
127; and Sir Joseph Banks, natu¬ 
ralist (1743-1820), 109, 110; 
and the Transit of Venus (1769), 

109, 110, 123 

Scurvy, 64, 76, 81, 88, 98, 99, 104, 

106, 110, 111, 112, 128, 132 
Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), 

101, 104, 120, 122 
Ships and shipping, 7, 88; Cygnet 
and Roebuck (Dampier), 101; 
Eendracht (Le Maire and 
Schouten), 98; Golden Hinde 



Ships and shipping ( continued) 
(Drake), 94, 95, 156; HMS Dol¬ 
phin (Byron and Wallis), 107; 
HMS Endeavour (Cook), 109, 
110, 123, 165; HMS Swallow 
(Carteret), 108; La Boudeuse 
(Bougainville), 108; Santa Maria, 
Pinta, and Nina (Columbus), 43, 
44, 56, 144, 145; Victoria 
(Magellan), 65, 66, 85 
Silk Road, 2, 75, 116 
Slave trade, 15, 16, 17, 21 
Smith, Adam (1723-1790), 34 
South America, 1, 5, 51, 52, 64, 

67, 68, 86, 94, 97, 98, 101, 102, 
113, 115, 128, 132, 134, 135, 
152, 154; and the Amazon River, 
51, 134; and Argentina, 63; and 
Brazil, 25, 27, 29, 46, 50, 51, 

56, 63, 133, 134, 152; and 
Chile, 91, 94, 99, 127; and 
Colombia, 57; and Ecuador, 91; 
and Guiana, 56; and Patagonia 
(Argentina), 63, 64, 98, 120; 
and Rio de Janeiro, 51; and Rio 
de la Plata, 51, 63, 66, 122; and 
Venezuela, 56, 134 
Southeast Asia, 7 
Southland. See Australia 
South Sea. See Pacific Ocean 
Spain, 3, 4, 7, 49, 86, 89, 101, 

102, 119, 121, 122, 127, 131, 
133, 134, 150, 151, 152; admin¬ 
istration of, 56; and Anglo- 
Spanish rivalry, 67, 93, 94, 95, 
102, 112, 113, 127, 158; and the 
Armada (1588), 80, 125; explo¬ 
ration as national enterprise, 

43, 121; and law of the “closed 
seas,” 89, 112, 156; motives for 
voyages of exploration, 57, 58- 
60, 61, 66, 69, 113; and naviga¬ 
tion, 10; reconquista of, 36, 37; 
rivalry of, with Portugal, 86, 

147, 149; seaborne empire of, 
xiv, 8, 115; voyages of explora¬ 
tion, 34, 35, 73, 119; war with 
Portugal, 36 

Spice Islands. See Moluccas Islands 
Sri Lanka (Ceylon), 27, 28, 87, 96, 

Strait, search for, through the 
Americas, 55, 56, 58, 59, 60, 62, 
63, 66, 69, 122. See also North¬ 
west Passage 

Taiwan (Formosa), 62, 132 
Tasman, Abel Janszoon (ca. 1603— 
1659), 99-100, 103, 107, 132-133 
Terra Australis Incognita, 87, 88, 

91, 92, 94, 97, 98, 100, 101, 

103, 104-105, 106-107, 108, 
109, 110, 120, 123, 127, 131, 
132, 157, 159-160; and the 
legend disproved. 111, 123 

Tierra del Fuego, 64, 88, 94, 97, 
98, 120, 154, 157 
Tordesillas, Treaty of (1494), 46, 
50, 62, 124, 134, 147, 149-150. 
See also Demarcation of the 

Torres, Luis Vaez de (7 1613?), 92, 
96, 107, 131; and the Torres 
Strait, 92, 96, 107, 110, 131 
Trade, networks of, 2, 5-6, 8, 10, 
14, 17, 18, 19, 21, 27, 29, 30, 

34, 38, 67-68, 95, 104, 115, 
141-142; and commercial goods, 
5, 7-8, 10-11, 15, 16, 17-18, 

22, 23, 29, 45, 49, 60, 67-68, 

92, 93, 133, 140, 142, 159; and 
the country trade in maritime 
Asia, 28; and the global econ¬ 
omy, 6; Muslim domination of, 
in Asia, 24—25, 28, 29; and 
Pacific trade routes (and the 
Manila Galleon), 91, 93, 94, 95, 
131, 158-159 



United Provinces, 67, 85-86, 89, 
90, 97, 101, 102, 132; and Bata¬ 
via (Java), 96, 98, 99, 132; and 
the Dutch East India Company 
(est. 1602), 80, 95, 96, 97, 98, 
99, 100, 103, 116, 132; and the 
Dutch Revolt from Spanish rule 
(1566-1648), 93, 95, 96; and 
the Dutch West India Company 
(est. 1621), 103; exploration as 
national enterprise, 95-96; 
exploration of Australia, 97, 99; 
motives for and advantages in 
voyages of exploration, 95, 96, 
97, 98, 99, 100, 103, 117, 132; 
seaborne empire of, xiv, 8 

Vancouver, George (1757-1798), 
113, 115 

Verrazano, Giovanni da (1485— 
1528), 70, 133-134 

Vespucci, Amerigo (1451—1512), 
50-51, 56, 62, 63, 69, 122, 134- 
135, 152-154; death of, 135 

Vikings, xiv-xv, 4—5, 50 

Villalobos, Ruy Lopez de (1500- 
1544), 91 

Vivaldi, the brothers, 10 

Waldseemiiller, Martin, cartogra¬ 
pher (ca. 1470-ca. 1522), 51, 

69, 135 

Wallis, Samuel (1728-1795), 107- 
108, 109 

West Africa, 5, 9, 18, 20, 27, 73; 
and Cape Blanco, 15; and Cape 
Bojador, 13, 14, 15, 16, 21, 89; 
and Capejuby, 14, 15, 21; and 
Cape Palmas, 18; and the Gold 
Coast, 19, 21; and Guinea, 13, 
15, 16, 17, 19, 36, 38, 40, 149, 
160; and the Gulf of Guinea, 19, 
21; and the Niger River Delta, 

12, 13, 21; and the River of 
Gold, 13, 15; and Sao Tome, 

19, 21; and the Senegal River, 

13, 16, 17; and Sierra Leon, 


West Indies, 5, 34, 49, 52, 55, 56, 
59, 67, 68, 101, 147, 148, 151, 
154, 155; and the Arawak Indi¬ 
ans, 5; and the Bahamas Islands, 
43, 61, 66, 133; and the Carib 
Indians, 5; and Cuba, 44, 45, 

57, 58, 59, 72, 119; discoveries 
in, 43^-4, 47; and Hispaniola 
(Haiti), 9, 44, 47, 56, 57, 119; 
and Jamaica, 57, 126; and 
Puerto Rico, 59; and San Salva¬ 
dor Island, 43, 44; and the Taino 
Indians, 56 

Weymouth, George (fl. early 
1600s), 80 

Willoughby, Sir Hugh (ca. 1500- 
1554), 74, 122, 155 

Zheng He (1371-ca. 1434), voy¬ 
ages of, 2-3, 22, 141 

About the Author 

RONALD S. LOVE is Associate Professor of History at the University 
of West Georgia, Carrollton, GA. He is co-editor of Distant Lands and 
Diverse Cultures: The French Experience in Asia, 1600-1700 (Praeger, 
2002) and is currently completing a book-length study of Franco- 
Thai relations from 1660 to 1690.